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Self Development

Self Development

Do You Ruminate?

“Ruminants usually have a stomach divided into four compartments and chew a cud consisting of regurgitated, partially digested food. Ruminants include cattle, sheep, goats, deer, giraffes, antelopes, and camels” (Dictionary.com).

It sounds quite unappetizing to have food going back and forth in our digestive tracts. Anyone want to bring breakfast back for some more chewing?

While humans are not official ruminants, many of us do ruminate—many of us regularly bring up old and painful experiences. We remember and review them over and over. We fret about them. We brood. We blame ourselves. Just like stomach acid causes heartburn, the emotional “acid” of these painful recollections causes pain to our minds and hearts.

Do you ruminate? In the course of a normal day, do you find thoughts of stupid mistakes from the past popping into your head? Do you find yourself revisiting conversations, regretting comments that hurt others’ feelings? Do you have a nagging sense of guilt for things you wish you hadn’t done? Do you replay memories of your failings in your mind? If so, you ruminate. I know the pains of rumination; I am a skilled ruminator myself.

Out of the blue I will have thoughts about my stupidest moments. They are often trivial and probably forgotten by everyone but me.

In adulthood, women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression. Martin Seligman, the famous psychologist, nominates rumination as the reason. When women feel bad, they ruminate. They endlessly mull over their mistakes. They may even bring up old mistakes as evidence that they are thoughtless or foolish. They seem to have prosecuting attorneys within their own souls.

In contrast, when men feel bad, they tend to act. Maybe they go shoot some hoops, pick a fight, or drive recklessly. They are no wiser than women, but they are less likely to be depressed.

Let’s put rumination in spiritual perspective. We might assume that heaven sends ruminations as part of a campaign for repentance. That is mistaken. God sends invitations but not ruminations. Ruminations are a gift from Satan, the great accuser. It is he who wants to keep us miserable in a cycle of self-blame and endless recrimination. He knows that such thinking sparks despair rather than repentance.

The good news is that we can stop ruminating—we can stop being the victims of Satan’s accusations. And we can do it while still being appropriately accountable. I will adapt Seligman’s five suggestions.

First, we can learn to recognize those automatic thoughts that flit through our heads. We can notice when we bring back mistakes in service of accusing and blaming ourselves. Often we start a narrative that suggests that our badness is personal, permanent, and pervasive. “I keep making the same stupid mistakes again and again in every part of my life. What is wrong with me?” We should catch ourselves when we say such things.

Second, we can learn to challenge or dispute those automatic thoughts. Yes. We make mistakes. Foolish ones. We also do many things well. And we keep learning and growing from our mistakes. Taking a bleak view of ourselves is a distortion intended to immobilize us. God does not want us to feel hopeless.

Third, we can learn to change our explanations. Maybe we discover that we have problems when we are under pressure or when we’re tired. We show ourselves the same kind of compassion we would show others: “I don’t do well in those circumstances. I will ask people to help me avoid those situations that bring out the worst.”

Fourth, we can learn to distract ourselves from depressing thoughts. Rather than let ourselves cascade into misery and self-hate, we do something to help us productively move forward. Maybe we talk a walk, or work on a project, or connect with a friend. We may postpone thoughts about our mistakes until we are feeling more safe and balanced.

Fifth, we can challenge our “depression-sowing assumptions.” Maybe you find yourself thinking about your weaknesses, mistakes, and shortcomings. Of course, there is some truth to those accusations. We are indeed fallen. And, “because of the fall, our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2). But any pain at our fallenness should be promptly healed by His redemptiveness. We should acknowledge our weaknesses and choose repentance. To wallow in self-accusation, believing that we are beyond repair or beyond forgiveness, is to disrespect the power of the atonement can heal and change us.

There are times when God would have us minister to those we have injured. There is a place for apologies and reparations. There are times when God will call us to do better as we move forward. But there is not a place in God’s plan for endless self-recrimination.

I recommend Nephi’s psalm (2 Ne 4:17-35) as a pattern for dealing with self-accusation. When Nephi dwelt on what was wrong with himself (vv. 17-19), he was miserable. When he turned to what is right about God (vv. 19-35), he rejoiced and was filled with hope. There is a core lesson of life there.

We are demonstrably foolish as fallen humans. But God is fully determined to provide us experience AND redeem us. “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds our recurring wrongs,” as Neal Maxwell reminded us.

So, when those bitter tastes of foolishness and fallenness come to our mouths, we should swallow hard and fill our mouths with rejoicing in the One who has paid our tuition in the school of life—the One who knows that we will make abundant mistakes but whose commitment to us is infinite and eternal.

Invitation:
Next time you notice the bitter taste of self-blame, cry out for mercy, “O Jesus, Thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” Ask Him to heal you. Ask Him what He would have you do to make needed amends.

Recommendations:
You may enjoy Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, or Albert Ellis’ book, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything–Yes, Anything!

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful editing.

Self Development

The Path to Peace


I will never forget. She knocked on my door at the university. “Do you have a few minutes?”

“Come in.” The young woman was a student at the university and a lapsed latter-day saint. I was her branch president even though she didn’t come to church.

She sat in front of me. “I have just come from my therapist and I’m feeling confused. My dad has been dead for years, but I have never stopped hurting about his absence during his long sickness. Today my therapist asked me to mentally sit my dad in a chair in front of me and to blast him with my years of pain, loss, and frustration. Let him know how furious I am that he got sick and didn’t take part in my life. Tell him how I resent him for failing to protect me from an angry mother.”

I waited for her to say more.

“What do you think of that?” she finally asked.

I am not a therapist. And I didn’t know her therapist’s objectives. But I have learned a little about God’s processes for peace.

“I don’t know your therapist’s objectives. I leave you to judge whether that activity brings you the peace you seek. I do have a suggestion. Someday you will be ready to have another conversation with your deceased Dad. Invite him to sit comfortably in a chair in front of you. Then kneel at his feet and ask him, ‘Dad, your life was cut short by chronic illness and death. Would you tell me what we would have done together if you hadn’t gotten sick? Tell me about ball games we would have attended, lectures you would have given me, love and encouragement you would have offered. Help me create the life we might have had together if you had not gotten sick.’”

“Then listen. Imagine his voice in your mind. I’m guessing he would say something like: ‘Sweetheart! I am so sorry! How I yearned to be a part of your life! How I wanted to be a dad to you! Thank you for inviting me to create a new history for us!’”

Dad will rejoice in the invitation.

Resentment is very energizing. And it provides a ready justification for our own stuckness in our pained lives. In contrast, forgiveness is very liberating.

God offers surprising counsel:

My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened.
Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.

What??? If we don’t forgive others, we are guilty of a greater sin than they—even when their sins are grievous? He explains why:

I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.

When we withhold forgiveness from those who offend us, we are presuming to limit or regulate God’s grace. We are claiming a prerogative that is His alone!

And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds. (D&C 64:8-11)

We are to leave every person in God’s hands. And I’m pretty sure that He does not want us to entertain fantasies of heavenly revenge on the heads of our enemies. Rather He wants us to let Him do His work of refinement and redemption for every one of His children. He wants us to wish Him and them success.

“Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay” (Mormon 8:20).

Of us, it is required to forgive all people. Corrie ten Boom forgave a prison guard. Heber J. Grant forgave a sinful brother. Jesus forgave the Roman soldiers. We must forgive offences small and large.

The need for forgiveness is vast. We regularly hurt each other. We trample others unthinkingly.

“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.

“The ill-timed truth we might have kept-
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say-
Who knows how grandly it had rung?”
(Edward Sill, Fool’s Prayer)

Our only hope as families, as a church, as a society is to become glad forgivers.

I am everlastingly grateful to kind, forgiving souls who have granted me forgiveness I did not deserve. My sweet wife is an amazing forgiver! I am overwhelming grateful to the One who continues to offer forgiveness: “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds my recurring wrongs” (Neal A. Maxwell).

I think of the hungry boy in Leo Tolstoy’s story—the boy who stole an apple to assuage his hunger. When caught by the angry woman who owned the apple, she threatened to beat him within an inch of his life. But a cobbler intervened: “If he should be whipped for an apple, what should be done with us?”

Yes. We all offend heaven and fellow travelers regularly. If we want to receive mercy, we must be willing to extend mercy. The essential lubricant for journeying toward Zion is forgiveness.

As my kind and gospel-loving father used to suggest, people carry terrible burdens and painful injuries. We should help every person we meet in their journey. We should offer them compassion and encouragement.

If we want to enjoy peace in a fallen world filled with flawed people, we must be good forgivers. If we want to learn to be partakers of the divine nature, we have no choice but to be glad forgivers.

I am grateful that God offers His mercy so fully and so gladly. May we pray with all the energy of heart to be filled with that forgiving love. May we bring peace to the world through forgivingness.

Invitation: Notice when you feel resentment or judgment welling up inside you. Call on God to help you see the person as God sees him or her.

Recommendation: Everett L. Worthington has been a leading scholar on forgiveness. See, for example, Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful edits.

Self Development

Do You Want to Fill the Measure of Your Creation? The Lord’s Program for Being Useful

I grew up trying to overcome my strengths. I didn’t like the excesses that came from my native enthusiasm, so I determined to be moderate. I hated the distractibility that came with my creativity, so I resolved to be steady.

I was a man at war with himself. I was neither happy nor productive.

It was immensely liberating for me when, as an adult, I read the recommendation of brilliant psychologist, Martin Seligman:

I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths. (p. 13, Authentic Happiness)

Our focus should be on using our strengths! What an intriguing idea! How does that fit with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What is the Lord’s program of gifts?

Tucked away in the Doctrine and Covenants (section 46) is God’s program of spiritual gifts and personal development. His instruction can guide us to a full life. Five points seem very clear:

1. “…To every [person] is given a gift by the Spirit of God” (v.11).

God equips every child with a gift or some combination of gifts. The question is not whether we have gifts, but whether we have discovered them.

Each of us should study and pray to come to know the gifts we have been given. I recommend that you take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to learn your signature strengths. The Keirsey Temperament Sorter or Myers-Briggs test can also be a resource. The first two of these can be taken free online.

We can also become more aware of our gifts as we notice what kind of work we love.

This scripture also encourages us to notice and appreciate the gifts and strengths of others.

2. “To some is given one, and to some is given another . . . ” (v.12).

The human tendency is to compare ourselves to others and feel we don’t measure up. But we are not given the same gifts as others. Joseph Smith had different gifts from Brigham Young. Peter had different gifts from Paul. You have different gifts than I do.

“For there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God” (D&C 46:11).

Rather than worrying that we do not measure up to the gifts of others, we should understand and celebrate the gifts we are given. If we fail to use our gifts because we consider them inferior to someone else’s gifts, then we are unwise servants. It is better to rejoice in the gifts given to others and combine them with our own in service to worthy causes.

“Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” (Alma 29:6).

It is worth remembering that God gives us weakness (Ether 12:27) so that we recognize our desperate need for Him. Thus, the angelic directive to our first parents and all of us since is: “Wherefore, 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 5:7). Only He can ultimately eradicate our weaknesses.

3. “And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God” (D&C 46:26).

For those who are tempted to covet others’ gifts, God has given the good news that all gifts in all people belong to all of us in a community of caring and service. God has not given us gifts so that we may win trophies and impress our neighbors. He has given us gifts so “that all may be profited thereby” (v.12).

Discoveries from research have shown that using our gifts to serve others actually contributes to our level of happiness in life. God has always known the growth-promoting and healing benefits of serving and loving. When our gifts are woven together in a tapestry of caring, we are filling the measure of our creation. We are becoming more like Him.

Prophets of every era have counseled us to serve and bless one another. It is essential to our growth. We can do God’s work by pondering how we can better use the specific gifts He has given us in ministering to others.

4. “Seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given” (v.8).

God encourages us to keep growing. We pray for God to enlarge and refine us. For example, we pray earnestly for the gift of charity. We pray for any gift that will enable us to bless His children.

The fact that God calls these “gifts” should remind us of the source. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

5. “Ye must give thanks unto God in the Spirit for whatsoever blessing ye are blessed with” (v.32).

Gratitude opens the windows of heaven. “O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!” (Mosiah 2:19). All gifts are a divine bestowal intended to bless all of our brothers and sisters. Part of gratitude is acknowledging and magnifying our gifts.

So is Seligman right? Should our focus be on using our gifts more than eliminating our faults? God’s program of gifts seems consistent with that idea. When we fill the measure of our creation, we have inexpressible joy. We use the gifts God has given us and we pray for His mercy to manage our faults.

Invitation: What are the gifts God has given you? How can you use them to bless His children?

Recommendations: I recommend that you seek to become more aware of the gifts God has given you. You may also be interested in Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness.

Parts of this article were drawn from my book, Modern Myths and Latter-day Truths.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful contributions to this article.

Self Development

Out of Small Things Come Great Blessings

When we moved to Little Rock, Nancy launched her traditional “meet the neighbors” campaign. One day, after I got home from work, she told me about her visit to Elizabeth Howitt who lived directly behind us. “She is the most amazing woman! She is a remarkable seamstress, a vibrant woman, and a delight to talk to. She is 80-something years old and a widow from Scotland.” Nancy had already fallen in love with her.

Nancy suggested that, since Elizabeth’s family all lived far away, we become a support system for her. I agreed.

Every week during the summer we mowed her lawn. She baked us royal biscuits. We painted her living room. She made us dinner. We made repairs around her house. She told us stories and taught us expressions from her homeland. “I looked at the yard and felt like a dog with two tails.” “My bag was packed like a dog’s breakfast.” “I lit the heater and took a bath and oh! I wouldn’t call the queen my cousin.” “Bob’s your uncle.”

She would sweep up the dust in the alleyway to add as fill dirt to her yard. She ate steel-cut oats daily for breakfast. She walked laps within her home. She read and reread hundreds of books from the library. We were amazed by her breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for life.
What a vibrant person!

When we went out for a burger or a barbecue sandwich, we took her along. Though she was a tiny little person, she ate more than either of us.

She learned about our family and kept track of each person even though they lived across the country. We celebrated holidays together. She introduced us to her family when they visited.

What started as a service project became something quite different. We became dear friends with Elizabeth.

My beloved Nancy wanted to share the gospel with her. Elizabeth listened attentively and courteously. But, as a witness to decades of religious fighting, she was not interested.

After six years of beautiful friendship, Elizabeth became ill. She was found to have an advanced case of cancer. She died within a month of the diagnosis. It was then that we fully appreciated how much she had changed our lives. We missed her stories, her friendship, her zeal, her “biscuits.” We missed her.

Before she died she gave to us a lovely chair that she had upholstered. The chair sits proudly in our living room.

Service—heartfelt service—changes people. It enlarges hearts and enriches lives. Atop the pyramid of happiness-building recommendations of science is this one: Serve. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us; God has been recommending service from the beginning of time. The One who washed His disciples dirty and reluctant feet commanded us to love as He loves.

Of course, there is a potential problem with serving. Some of us feel quite guilty if we do not show up for every service project, assist in every move, and visit every widow. So, we totter between exhaustion and guilt. That approach to service is not healthy.

I love the idea that we bring a willingness to every invitation to serve. We want to serve. We gladly serve. Yet we carefully follow God’s direction. For some neighbors we offer fellowship and a plate of cookies. Every once in a while, God will send an Elizabeth into our lives. We seize the blessing when it comes.

God will call us to serve many people in many ways.

We thank God for Elizabeth Howitt. We can’t wait to visit with her again and enjoy Royal Biscuits in heaven.

Invitation: As you read these words, whom do you feel God is calling you to serve? What would He have you do for them?

Recommendation:
Seligman’s Authentic Happiness reviews the great research on happiness. I heartily recommend it. (He has written a more recent book, Flourish. I believe that Authentic Happiness is a stronger book.)

Self Development

Defeating Dark Messages

“I don’t feel like I’m doing anything important. And I don’t feel connected to the ward members. In fact, I feel inferior to them. I feel pretty worthless.”

The good woman who shared these feelings with me is not alone. Joseph Smith confessed:

“I have visited a grove which is Just back of the town almost every day where I can be Secluded from the eyes of any mortal and there give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meaditation and prayr. I have called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to morn and Shed tears of sorrow for my folly in sufering the adversary of my soul to have so much power over me as he has had in times past, but God is merciful and has forgiven my Sins and I rejoice that he Sendeth forth the Comferter unto as many as believe and humbleth themselves before him” (Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 6 June 1832, Church Archives).

Squeaky clean Nephi also felt inadequate:

“O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Nephi 4:17-19).

I join Nephi, Joseph Smith, and all others who grieve over their follies and failings. Several times a day a thought of a foolish moment or a stupid mistake drops on my soul, making me squirm.

“When I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.” Often our sins and weaknesses are all mingled in a puddle of humiliation. In this world, sensitive people are likely to feel stupid and inferior.

Do you have faults that discourage you? Do you ever feel like giving up on yourself? Do you feel clueless and weak?

One of Satan’s greatest deceptions is to convince us that discouraging thoughts are from God. “He is disappointed in you.”

This truth is essential: God does not speak to His children that way. He does not chide, scold, and harass. “That which doth not edify is NOT of God” (D&C 50:23, emphasis added). He does send specific instructions, but He does not torment us.

Dark messages come from Satan. He is the father of lies and the master of misery.

How do we explain our self-disappointment? “Because of the fall, our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2). When we recognize that our eternal spirits are regularly burdened by our earthly realities, we are ready for the companion truth: There is only One remedy for the Fall: Jesus.

Nephi set the example for all of us who are discouraged. After expressing his despair in his spiritual failures, he pivoted away from himself and toward God: “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep. He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh” (2 Nephi 4:19-21).

Melancholy is transformed in a minute if we turn from our fallenness to His redemptiveness. Alma provides a powerful example of the principle:

“There could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. . . . On the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy (Alma 36:21).

Alma’s transformation came when he cried out, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). That is not theoretical religion; that is applied faith.

When I feel assaulted by my recollection of mistakes and failings, rather than brood, I call out with Alma, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” I throw myself on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save. I pray that He will forgive me of my sins and heal those I have injured. Instead of dwelling on my inadequacies, I ask that Him to use my gifts. Rather than feel defeated by my weaknesses, I pray He change my nature and make me more like Him. That is what He loves to do. And the key to accessing His power is calling on Him with full purpose of heart.

When we understand this principle, we rejoice with Paul:

“And [the Lord] 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 Corinthians 12:9-10)

When God graciously reveals my inadequacy to me, He is inviting me to call on heavenly power. For that reason, every awareness of my imperfection is a blessing.

I am not recommending tired resignation. Quite the contrary. I recommend that we humbly acknowledge our weakness and throw ourselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of the only one who can fix us. It is surprisingly liberating. We stop expecting ourselves to do the impossible—to make ourselves virtuous. And we turn to the one who loves to heal broken things. What are the steps in the process?

1. We transform nagging feelings of spiritual inadequacy into active faith: “O Jesus, thou son of God, have mercy on me.”

2. We cheerfully do those things we are able to do (See D&C 123:17). We repent. We make amends. We try to act on Divine invitations to change for the better.

3. We show our trust in Him by pushing away Satan’s attempts to discourage us. We choose peace.

This process works because we understand His process. We know that Only He can make us holy.

Invitation: The next time you feel burdened by weakness or assaulted by failings, try Alma’s words, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” Cast Satan out of your mind and heart and invite Jesus in.

Recommendation: I recommend Believing Christ by Stephen Robinson.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her editing of this article.

Self Development

Overcoming the Odds

Cory Hatch was a unique kid. For example, as a high school sophomore in a rural school, he often had that telltale ring in the back pocket of his jeans. A new teacher would approach him:

“Cory, give me your chewing tobacco.”

Looking innocent, he responded indignantly: “I don’t have any tobacco.”

“C’mon, Cory. You know you’re not allowed to have tobacco at school.”

“I don’t have any tobacco.”

“Cory, just give me what’s in your right rear pocket.”

Cory would reach in his pocket and hand the teacher a roll of electrical tape-which just happened to be the same size and shape as a can of common chewing tobacco.

For anyone else, that might seem like a case of pure mischief-deliberately baiting teachers. For Cory it was different. He was having fun before he died.

Cory was born with cystic fibrosis. Not only was his disease a death sentence for him, it overtook his life, entailing hours of breathing treatments patiently administered by his loving mother every night. And it meant that he was the shortest and smallest student in the school. He may have weighed 80 pounds in high school. By10th grade, he had already outlived his life expectancy. Though he lived with the threat of death, he lived his life joyously.

I remember Cory joshing other kids. He didn’t have the size or strength to intimidate anyone, but he had the wits and personality to leave a lasting impression on many lives.

There was another small student at the school. The football players liked to pick him up and shove him headfirst into garbage cans. But Cory didn’t allow them to do that with him. He didn’t plead poor health. He didn’t ask for pity. Nope. If any football players came at him, he turned to face them squarely. Picture this tiny guy facing a crowd of menacing footballers two to three times his size. “Just a minute guys. You need to think about this.” When he had their undivided attention, he declared, “If you shove me in that garbage can, I will be forced to beat the hell out of every one of you.” Everyone laughed and Cory never went in a garbage can.

Cory’s IQ did not set him apart. No. It was his positivity and sense of humor. He enjoyed life and he intended to live it to the fullest.

At the end of his sophomore year, Cory wrote in my yearbook: “From one of the most kind-hearted, well-mannered, intelligent persons you have ever had in a class. Cory Hatch” He’s right. Yet I would add more. He was one of the most clever, savvy, sensitive, and vibrant people I ever knew. I love him.

When Cory left to go to college and no longer had his mother’s care, he died. As one of his teachers and his scout leader, I was asked to speak at his funeral. I realized how profoundly that little man impacted my life.

Cory defied the odds. He had the risk factors for many kinds of human misery. Yet he lived vibrantly.

Most of us assume that our level of happiness depends on our circumstances. We tell ourselves that the challenges and burdens of our lives mean we have little choice but to feel unhappy and disheartened. But research tells us that our choices have far more impact on our happiness than our circumstances. Cory’s example confirms that the people who are happier are not so because they have optimal life circumstances. They are happier because they choose to focus on whatever is positive and joyful about life.

Thank you, Cory, for your life and your example. I hope all of us will choose to live as vibrantly as you did. I can’t wait to see you again.

Invitation: Who are the people you know who have lived vibrantly? What can you learn from them to live your life more fully?

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful suggestions on this article.

Self Development

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

Making Grace Personal

Stephen Robinson was the person who awakened me to the new LDS understanding of grace. He replaced my spiritual do-it-yourself attitude with an understanding of the infinite and eternal atonement. His book, Believing Christ, has changed my life—and the lives of thousands of Latter-day Saints.

Maybe Hafen, Wilcox, or Givens or someone else awakened you. Thank heaven that the light has dawned! We understand now better than ever that we cannot save ourselves. We can allow ourselves to be humbled. We can throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace. But we are saved through His redemption. His is the only name under heaven whereby we can be saved (See Acts 4:12).

That doctrine is central to the Book of Mormon message. And the Bible’s message. Yet it required a new generation of messengers to break down our cultural resistance.

It seems to me that there is one thing still missing even after this remarkable revolution. It is a great first step to recognize that Jesus is a Savior who saves. It is quite another thing to fully accept that His saving can reach through my weakness, my contrariness, my fallenness and encircle me in the arms of His love (See Lehi’s words in 2 Nephi 1:15).

It is great to know that Jesus and His plan are so amazing. But it doesn’t change anything for me or any of us until we accept that He loves and fully intends to save us. The plan must become personal to be meaningful.

For years I believed and taught that Jesus loves us with an incomprehensible love. But I did not accept that He loved me because I knew that I often acted foolishly, selfishly, and wickedly. I often made bad choices while knowing better. As a result, I did not truly believe that He could love me or rescue me. I felt that His love could not reach past my badness.

I wish I could say that I matured into a wiser view of His redemptiveness. That’s not what happened. No. He tricked me into accepting His love.

When I was serving as a bishop, He sent a deeply troubled woman to visit with me. She described a life that was filled with the wreckage of bad choices and regrettable behaviors. I saw little hope for her. When she asked for counsel I was worried. What hope could I offer to someone whose life was in total shambles.

But then something astonishing happened. God reached to one of His troubled children through a weak messenger. I found myself telling this troubled woman that there were three things the Lord wanted her to do. I had no idea what they were. But the Lord told me there were three things. When I wrote the number “1” on a piece of paper, a clear, wise, loving, and encouraging message came. We discussed the idea. When I wrote the number “2” on the paper, another wise and loving bit of counsel came; likewise, with #3. God loved her, taught her, and sent her forth with hope and a plan.

I was dumbfounded. I was astonished by His love for even His most troubled children. I knelt on the floor and shook my head: “I had no idea how much You love your children! I just didn’t know.” If He could and did love her despite all that she had described to me, then He must also love me the same way.

Ever since that day, I have rejoiced in His love. I still grieve at my mistakes. But I repent more gladly and live more fully because I know that His love extends to me.

Dozens of readings of Believing Christ helped me understand the plan. I grew in my love and appreciation for Him. But His message did not become fully personal until God broke through my defenses and surprised me with His love!

I suspect that there are many saints who are committed appreciators of Jesus but not yet surrendered disciples. How do we move from appreciators to disciples? What are the steps?

I don’t know. He had to trick me. And the way He breaks through your defenses will be different from the way He broke through mine.

I suppose that we can lower our defenses. We can learn of His magnificent plan. But the experience of His love will always be a miracle. Maybe the best we can do is pray for it and embrace it when it comes. And we must trust that, because of His love, He does stand ready to save and redeem us. He carries each of us to glory.

As the years go by, I become more and more aware of “His relentless redemptiveness.” Story after story in scripture deliver the same message: God is faithful. He presides in our messy learning process. When we are foolish and contrary, He offers a fresh start through the atonement of Jesus Christ. With infinite patience, He oversees our development toward godliness, line upon line.

If you haven’t already felt that life-changing love, I wish I could tell you how to find it. I pray that you will persist in seeking it until you are swamped by the personal good news: Jesus loves YOU and intends to teach and bless you until you are ready to go to your Heavenly Home and join Him in the work of redemption.

Self Development

Getting Heavenly Guidance

Our friend John wondered why there were so few crickets. They used to make a racket every summer evening. Now they were almost silent. What was the reason? Pesticides? Winter freeze? Migration?

Then he got hearing aids. The first night after getting those devices, he asked his wife, “The crickets are so loud! Have they been that loud all along?”

Many of us know someone whose hearing has declined and finds it difficult to interpret the voices around them. The same thing can happen to our “spiritual hearing”. Over time our sensitivity to spiritual messages can diminish or disappear. We can become spiritually deaf.

“Ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words” (1 Nephi 17:45).

There is an older high priest I know. When asked about his greatest spiritual experiences, he still referenced his mission which occurred 60 years ago. While he certainly should remember and treasure wonderful spiritual experiences during his mission, it is unfortunate that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge any more recent meaningful encounters with the Spirit. Has he stopped seeking the Spirit or craving heaven’s counsel? Does he imagine that the Spirit has gone silent regarding his life?

I contrast that high priest with David Biliter. When he was in our stake presidency, he typically began temple recommend interviews by asking, “Do you mind sharing with me the last time you felt the Spirit?” Every time he asked me that question, we were both flooded by heavenly light. Just asking the question invited the Spirit into our lives.

Our responsiveness to God is like being a horse on whom God is the Rider. When he pulls the bridle one way or the other, a reluctant horse may resist—having his own course in mind. A good horse will respond to the direction. A great horse will turn when God merely leans in the saddle. Our whole orientation can be welded to His will. But only if we welcome it.

How do we enjoy more of His influence and guidance in our lives? There are stock answers to that question. But those stock answers can be somewhat shallow. And they suggest there is a standard “one-size-fits-all” process to follow in order to listen to the Spirit. That is not the case. Each of us has our own communication style and learning process. Our Father understands us individually and customizes the way that He reaches out to each of us. Instead of trying to follow some standard recommendations, we should explore how God tailors His communications to us.

For some, the surest way to bring Him present is music. For example, I cannot play Glorious by the One Voice Children’s Choir without weeping with joy. It always touches me!

Others are inspired by nature. Time spent in God’s creation makes a heavenly connection for them.

Some connect best through prayer. Yet there many ways to pray. When we try to follow someone else’s formula, we may get frustrated. Elder Douglas Callister recommended that instead of offering the same rote prayers every day, “Choose what you want to talk to Father about. Just one, or two, or three things, not a great deal. But talk to him the way a child talks to a father that is much loved. When you get up from your knees, you’ll remember what you prayed for and it won’t be the same thing as the night before or the night which follows.” (“Take Control”, Devotional at Snow College)

Some may be uplifted by testifying. I love speaking and writing about God’s amazing work! As I share, He teaches me new things.

Some find the Divine through pondering. Some connect with the Spirit by asking questions and then listening for answers to come.

We can learn to hear the voice of God in scripture. There are thousands of different ways to find Him from reading and reflecting to using study guides and studying with friends. Our study program will change as our needs change. And they will vary by our personality.

What works for you? As you think of the best experiences you have had with the Spirit, how have those experiences been achieved? In what way does Heavenly Father connect with you individually? How do you best seek His voice and receive His messages? How can you have meaningful experiences with the Spirit more often?

Each of us must earnestly seek to find the way to cultivate the Spirit in our unique individual lives. The Holy Ghost is dedicated to the very serious business of getting us through the mess of mortality and back to Father. It makes sense for us to cooperate with Him.

If you had the opportunity for a great historical figure to visit you, how would you prepare for that visit? Chances are you would take that opportunity very seriously. Probably you would prepare carefully. You might think of questions you would want to ask. You likely would listen carefully and respectfully. You might earnestly take notes. You would probably reflect back upon the conversation afterwards. So shouldn’t we approach the opportunity to spend time with Heaven’s Messenger as seriously? We should grab that opportunity as often as we can! We should notice and honor His presence. We should be respectful of impressions He shares with us. We should give serious consideration to the truths He delivers and take action upon them.

For that reason I keep a small joy journal. Every day I record the things that went well. Naturally that includes any messages from Heaven. They come wrapped in joy. They inspire, comfort, and guide. I want to notice them, remember them, and guide my life by them.

Invitation: What could you do to be more mindful of God’s messages? What can you do to better guide your life by them?

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful contributions to this article.

Recommendation: Consider reading a book on personal revelation such as Hearing the Voice of the Lord by Gerald N. Lund or Personal Revelation: How to Recognize Promptings of the Spirit by JoAnn Hibbert Hamilton

Self Development

Who Deserves Our Compassion?

A good friend called to talk about a difficult uncle. He is distant and prickly. She is tired of trying to be nice to him when he shows only rudeness to her. I suggested that she try to understand his struggles and pains. She commented that he doesn’t deserve her compassion.

Deserve her compassion? It struck me instinctively that the proper question is never one of deservingness. None of us deserves compassion. We are all narrow and selfish. We all deserve condemnation.

Yet “if we demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will all soon be blind and toothless” (variously attributed).

We humans expect mercy and compassion for our misdeeds while offering justice and retribution to others for their misdeeds. We cluck at those who text while driving. But, when we text (or check movie schedules, or read emails) while driving, it is only for truly vital matters.

We resent any snubs from the people around us. Yet we ourselves sniff at or ignore unnumbered people every day.

We all know this is wrong but it is so common that our offences become like Muzak at the mall; we hardly notice. We become Pharisees humming Come, Come Ye Saints.

Occasionally our consciences tweak us. We feel the discomfort of acting at odds with our values. And we make a choice. We set aside conscience or we embrace it.

Let’s imagine we embrace conscience. For the woman dealing with a difficult uncle, it may be impossible to go directly from pain to compassion. She may need first to feel God’s compassion for her. He grieves at her suffering. He feels her pain personally and profoundly. When we allow ourselves to be filled with His compassion, it becomes possible for us to show compassion. When we have a vibrant, loving relationship with Him, it becomes possible to be His messengers.

How do we get there? What if we feel like spiritual failures? What if we can’t seem to find His love despite a lifetime of trying?

I don’t have any easy answer to those questions. In my case, Heavenly Father tricked me. He showed me how much He loved His most broken and desperate children. As I witnessed His love for them, I finally stopped resisting His love for me. I finally sang the song of redeeming love in a personal way.

I don’t know how He will reach you. But I am sure it is always good for us to drop our defenses against Him. It is good to beg for an outpouring of His love. I cannot say what your path will be but I know that He is anxious to fill you, to bless you, to love you, to heal you, and to partner with you.

If God weeps with the suffering of His wicked children (Moses 7), He certainly grieves over our struggles. Feeling His compassion and devotion prepares us to act like Him—offering compassion to our fellow travelers.

Because we are in a fallen world, we are all injured, broken, damaged, and fragmented. Rather than scoff at each other’s injuries, we can be kind; After all, “everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We can offer a crust of bread and a kind word to every person we meet. We can work to notice each person God places in our paths.

When we are filled with the love of God, we can turn toward people with warm and loving curiosity: What unique gift has God given this person? What can I learn from this child of God? What might God call me to do for this person?

The surest way to draw heaven into our lives is to show compassion—undeserved compassion. “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again” (Luke 6:38).

I love Joni Hilton’s invitation: “Next time you’re in line at the market, or pumping gas, or in the workplace, notice the people around you and the quick conclusions you’re tempted to draw. Catch yourself judging unfairly and rewind the tape. Instead, see this person as a child of God who is loved and hoped for. Know that a Patriarchal Blessing awaits this person. Realize they cheered in the Pre-mortal World when they heard the Plan of Happiness. Ask a silent prayer to see if your path was meant to cross theirs today, to help them and bring them the truth” (Joni Hilton, Meridian Magazine, Are You More Judgmental than You Think? http://www.ldsmag.com/article/1/12281)

It feels good to show love.

Invitation:

Ask Heavenly Father for the gift to really see people—especially to see them as He sees them. Pause to offer compassion, to pray for them, to appreciate them. If appropriate, ask them about themselves. Enter their worlds with interest and compassion. Express appreciation. Pray for them.

Recommendations:

I recommend that everyone read Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ.