Who’s to Blame for Suffering?

The opening paragraphs of the exciting new narrative history of the LDS church begin, oddly, in a jungle village on the slopes of Mount Tambora, Indonesia in 1815.

Caldera_Mt_Tambora_Sumbawa_IndonesiaThink about how nonsensical that seems for the history of a religion founded in 1830 in upstate New York.

The narrative quickly connects the dots, however, revealing how the eruption of Mount Tambora caused dramatic weather changes across the world, which contributed to driving the struggling Smith family away from their home in Vermont to a new opportunity in New York, where young Joseph Smith would eventually find his destiny as founder and leader of the Mormon faith.

But this is an odd choice, right? Do we really need to draw the line that far back? Couldn’t we just say, “Joseph Smith Senior had a bad year on the farm in Vermont and moved his family to New York?” or even, “Joseph Smith first expressed concern about religion while living in New York…” Do we need to trace the causal chain back to an Indonesian volcano? 

More importantly, isn’t it a little risky to put causal emphasis on natural disasters in a chapter about the establishment of a church?

In fact, a cynical view of Mormonism would probably interpret this story by asking something like, “Wait, are you trying to claim that God caused a volcano to erupt and therefore caused the suffering of countless human beings around the world for years just so he could move the Smith family to be closer to the gold plates?” The implication, of course, is that this is an incredibly unjust and overpowered activity for an omnipotent God who has our best wishes at heart.

Of course, the history itself makes no such claim about God, or the deeper reasons behind what happened leading up to the Smiths move, but some saints are likely to see God in an erupting volcano. Those of us who may be in the midst of struggles of some sort might easily wonder, “is my suffering also for a greater purpose?” “Is my suffering a message from God?” and, “Why doesn’t God help me?”

For the hurting soul, I wonder if the story of the volcano and the trials of the Smith family may actually not go back far enough.  When placed in the context of a secular world, I worry the story of the Smith family migration might come across as arrogant on the part of those believers who say things like “suffering has a purpose.”  Not because we are wrong necessarily, but because we may fail to be sufficiently sensitive to the aching hearts of those who are feeling unsure about their own purpose, and God’s awareness of their pain. It may feel like a pat on the shoulder and a patronizing, “God works in mysterious ways,” to those who feel their lives are directly under the cloud of a personal volcano eruption.

In other words, are we being clear enough in teaching that God will turn all things to our good – even the bad things – when we share stories this way? Or are we inviting further doubt by making it seem that – because we’re talking about a divinely guided establishment here – the divine wanted countless millions to suffer just so a little family would be forced to move?

I want to examine the questions this scenario brings up:  Who is at fault for the suffering on earth, is there a purpose to it, is it a message from God, am I just collateral damage in God’s plans, and, why doesn’t God help me.

Seems like an easy subject to cover in blog format…. right? … right?

Part 1: The Blame Game

I remember working in a restaurant and, one day, as we ran out of ranch dressing at the “salad station,” one of the servers became irate. He shouted and threw the containers. He searched the assignment chart to see who had been assigned the responsibility of refilling the dressings. He checked the work schedule to make sure that person had actually worked that day. He ranted and raved and took up far more time hunting down the person to blame for his problem than it would have taken to simply refill the dressing container.


In my undergraduate studies I tried to do research on blame. However what I found was that there was almost no research on the subject at that time. Blame is something that comes fairly naturally to us all, and we can see how it negatively affects relationships and jobs, but we really don’t have a clue as to why we feel the need to assign blame.

More recently, some interesting theories based on observed behavior shed some light on possible reasons behind this behavior. It turns out that the psychology of placing blame is remarkably deep, complex, and there is no single clear reason behind it.

Moral Dyads

One thing researchers have noticed is that we are hyper attuned to the idea that if there is suffering, or a “moral patient,” there simply must be a “moral agent” who caused it, (even when there isn’t).

Why we seem to be wired for this kind of dyadic mentality is uncertain, but we can see it happen all the time. When we notice something goes wrong –  somebody is injured so a “moral patient” exists – we instantly look for somebody or something to fill the “moral agent” role.

And when the victim seems to have been injured by an act of nature?

Our psychology makes us blame God.

Part 2: Who Does God Blame?

Our tendency to blame and our sense of justice are closely intertwined. We use blame to figure out who deserves to be punished. This is hugely complicated as we examine not just who is to blame, but every little aspect of their agency and experience in the incident. The more experience they have with the pain, the less likely we are to blame them. The more agency they seem to have, the more likely we are to blame them.

We see this in action all the time in our legal system as sides of a case bring up every misstep, every past bad action, every possible alternative. Does the driver of the vehicle have a history of getting speeding tickets? Was the pedestrian using a marked crosswalk? Was she dressing in inappropriately? Was there a warning label?

Blame is a defense mechanism, a method of attack, and an easy lie to make. It’s second nature to us yet we often use it to distort the truth, and to avoid solving problems. But how does God use blame?

Pharaoh’s Heart

My first encounter with the question of how God assigns blame came when I read about the Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt when I read God say this:

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…

God claims to be the one behind Pharaoh’s actions. Of course, if we believe in the agency of mankind, then we can’t accept this statement in a literal sense. Joseph Smith even changed it in his inspired translation to read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

Bridgman_Pharaoh's_Army_Engulfed_by_the_Red_SeaBut this is not the only time God makes such sweeping statements. While it is clear that God both gives us and honors our agency, it is equally clear that God himself takes the credit for so much! In particular, God, through his prophets, claimed to be responsible for victory in battle, as well as defeats; for natural disasters; the rise of kings and kingdoms; the establishment of Zion; and so much more.

Why is that? Why does God, over and over again, claim responsibility for not just acts of nature, but the bad acts of individual humans?

Part 3: How far back do you need to go?

I suppose that the historians writing the LDS Church history decided to stop at the volcano eruption in their story because any further back and you’ve switched from history to geology and that’s only exciting for a very small *ahem* strata of the population. But let’s imagine the LDS Church history authors had begun even earlier.  “When the crust of the earth cracked into plates…”  Would that have made it seem less presumptuous in the minds of the doubter or the cynic? Not really. Once you get to the Volcano you’re either blaming God or Nature and either way there’s no viable “next step” in the blame game.

So was the 1815 eruption of Tambora the ultimate source of suffering associated with the Smith migration? Or could we possibly go elsewhere? Can we definitively tie it to God or the devil or anything? And is there any connection between this natural disaster and all other forms of pain on the earth? Is God found in random natural acts, or is there no deeper meaning to geology and physics?

The lowest common denominator for pain found in Christianity is the Fall of Adam – where our mythology states suffering began. But aside from providing a source, can this doctrine also provide meaning, or even hope?

Really, we should all be dead by now.

Set the wayback machine to 1.  Like, literally the first day. (We’re not going to get sidetracked into the age of the earth or the literalness of the garden. Just stick with me for a while longer.) We find Adam and Eve in a sparkly pain-free paradise where nothing can go wrong and it never even rains. Jesus Christ has created the entire universe. His work. At some point he makes this earth.

Then, importantly, LDS doctrine tells us that God gives this earth to Adam and Eve and makes them ““lord or governor of all things” related to this earth. (see: Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985), 2:12) This is a big deal for one HUGE reason: Their decisions now apply to all of the earth and everything on it.

Jesus Christ – God and creator of all that is (and “all that is” at this point has been identified as being “good,”) tells Adam and Eve “you can have whatever you want, do whatever you want. But I forbid you from eating this fruit.

In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

I don’t think he was saying “I’m going to kill you if you eat that.” That would be really unjust. I think he was saying, “look: death is bad. If you eat that fruit, you will die. therefore, I must warn you. I must tell you not to eat that fruit. If you do, you will die. But, I’m putting it here because it has to be your choice whether you eat it or not.

So there’s some deep waters here, but I’ll try to avoid them for sake of not diluting the message. But let me sum it up this way: Basically Adam and Eve were presented with a choice – to stay with God in the garden, or to leave him forever.

And because God had given Adam dominion over the whole earth, his choice would be for Adam’s entire kingdom: the earth and all of his descendants. In the terms of our Dyadic perspective of blame, they now have both ALL the agency and ALL the experience.

So what did they do? They walked away from God.

Adam_and_Eve_TintorettoSo this is the point where people say, “Okay, he walked away from God, but so what? It made life harder? It made it so they could have kids?” But I don’t think that’s really a complete picture of the sheer magnitude of this choice.

The consequence for the fall was death, yes, but it was also walking away from God. And God is the personification of everything good.I think that’s why Mormon says:

all things which are good cometh of Christ; otherwise men were fallen, and there could no good thing come unto them.

He’s indicating that literally every good thing is thanks to God. That means that falling away from God is falling away from literally every good thing.

Not just weeds growing in your corn fields. Not just labor pains. Not just death. By rejecting God and accepting Satan’s temptations and the fall, the consequence is not just death but no life. No joy. No happiness. No peace. Nothing that can be called “good.”

Am I making sense here? If Adam and Eve had instantly collapsed in death, and the earth plunged into the sun immediately after the forbidden fruit were eaten it would have been entirely appropriate.

Before the fall: this is Christ’s creation. Nothing imperfect exists here. Only the potential for imperfection according to our agency. After the fall: absolutely no promise of anything good. Ever.

We. Should. All. Be. Dead.

Or writhing in the torture pits of Shiwan Khan. Or mutated by galactic radiation belts. Or crushed by a meteor. Bottom line: we have absolutely no reason to think that this fallen world would be anything approaching nice.

The shocking thing isn’t “why do bad things happen to good people?” it’s, “Why the heck am I even breathing?”

King Benjamin knew the answer to this question:

[God] is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another…

Lehi also spoke about this:

the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men. For he gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost, because of the transgression of their parents.

This life – this whole earth – is a grace period between the Fall of Adam and the consequences of that Fall. Every breath, every kind word, every act of service, every painting, every song, every good book, your job, your family, literally anything you can think of that is good is thanks to God holding back the consequences of the Fall.

Part 4: Taking Credit, Taking the Blame.

According to psychologists, our minds hare “hyper-attuned” to seeking out an agent behind suffering. When no immediate moral agent for suffering is evident, we tend to look at God without even thinking about it. In one survey, respondents easily identified God as the person with the most agency and least experience, meaning he was the most free to act in relation to suffering, but never the recipient of harm. Moral Typecasting Theory says that once we “cast” God in the role of perpetrator (or “agent”), we have a very difficult time re-casting him as victim, or sufferer.

This leads people to accuse God of being unjust, or lacking in power. Surely, they reason, if God had power to help, he would help.

Yet even as these voices accuse God, they also identify the justice of God’s ability to suffer with us.


Because Jesus Christ is the creator of this world – the ultimate agent, he has the ability to take full responsibility for it. His world, his fault. And he does . I think that that’s what all those verses in the scriptures are hinting at.  He’s not claiming he manipulated the mind or heart of Pharaoh, but he’s willing and able to take the blame for what Pharaoh is about to do, and ultimately pay the price for it.

He’s not saying he stirred up Israel’s enemies against their own agency, but as the ultimate agent, he is taking the blame for it.

God stood by and allowed Adam and Eve to choose a world full of randomness, cruelty, and injustice. Therefore he is able to place himself “on the hook” for everything that happens here.

But not only does he take responsibility for every last bit of injustice, pain, suffering, and death, but he also allows us to receive the blessings for all the good we do! He could just as easily take responsibility for every act of human kindness, every pile of firewood chopped by the scouts, every great piece of art or moment of compassion. But he doesn’t. He lets us keep that. He helps us grow those traits in ourselves. When Christ says “look what I did” he only takes credit for the flaws and the sins.

Part 5: Our Choice

So, here we are, on the slopes of Mount Tambora. The ash cloud is stretching past the horizon and millions of people are about to experience a micro-ice-age, with crops lost and lives disrupted. Some may die. Some will move to New York State. What do you do with that information?

The reality is that you choose.

Do you need to find the ultimate agent of this injustice?  Then blame God. It’s appropriate and he even lets us do it. When we pray for meaning God doesn’t hesitate to involve himself in our search. He accepts his role as ultimate agent whenever we need him to.

Are you the person who doesn’t need to know who forgot to fill the ranch, preferring instead to just get on with work? Great. Just get on with the work in front of you. It’s a wonderful gift you have and there are great blessings ahead for you. But, if we mean to truly emulate Christ, then we have to recognize the suffering of others and that some of that suffering may be due to seeing God as the source of so much pain.

Our role, perhaps, is to ease that pain by helping, when possible, people also see God as the source of so much good. And, when we fail to do that, to be there with our suffering siblings as Christ is.

11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

President Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, ours is a ministry of healing, with a duty to bind the wounds and ease the pain of those who suffer.”  I believe that Christ is our example in this, not just by taking the blame, but by taking the pain.

Part 6: God the Agent, God the Victim

Remember that mental habit I mentioned? It’s hard for people to see somebody as agent and then mentally shift and see them as victim? That one?  Well it’s true. For those of us who feel some sort of anger, frustration, or lack of understanding when it comes to God, it’s going to be much harder to see him as any sort of benevolent being, much less a friend.

But the message of Christ is a message of a double-being. A creator – the agent, and a redeemer – the willing victim. Christ fills the role of the blamed person behind all the bad, and he also suffers for it. He fills the role of not just the source of suffering but the victim of his own creation. Why is that?

Because by taking the blame for all of it, and suffering for it ALL, he can relieve us from the burden of the consequences of our sins.

Every bad act you performed can really, ultimately, be blamed on God. After all, he is the causal source of everything. He is the one who should be punished for putting you in this position, surely. And, having shouldered that punishment for us, there is no need for a punishment to be meted twice – as that would also be unjust.

13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

14 Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.

Christ’s sacrifice allows us to experience pain, mistakes, and even sins, without being condemned by them.  Elder Hafen put it this way:

Adam and Eve learned constantly from their often harsh experience. They knew how a troubled family feels. Think of Cain and Abel. Yet because of the Atonement, they could learn from their experience without being condemned by it. Christ’s sacrifice didn’t just erase their choices and return them to an Eden of innocence. That would be a story with no plot and no character growth. His plan is developmental—line upon line, step by step, grace for grace.

So if you have problems in your life, don’t assume there is something wrong with you. Struggling with those problems is at the very core of life’s purpose…

Paul said, “If so be that we suffer with him,” we are “joint-heirs with Christ.”15 All of His heart, all of our hearts.

What possible pearl could be worth such a price—for Him and for us? This earth is not our home. We are away at school, trying to master the lessons of “the great plan of happiness”16 so we can return home and know what it means to be there. Over and over the Lord tells us why the plan is worth our sacrifice—and His. Eve called it “the joy of our redemption.”17 Jacob called it “that happiness which is prepared for the saints.”18 Of necessity, the plan is full of thorns and tears—His and ours. But because He and we are so totally in this together, our being “at one” with Him in overcoming all opposition will itself bring us “incomprehensible joy.”…

We cannot really feel charity—Christ’s love for others—without at least tasting His suffering for others, because the love and the suffering are but two sides of a single reality. When we really are afflicted in the afflictions of other people, we may enter “the fellowship of his sufferings”27enough to become joint-heirs with Him.

May we not shrink when we discover, paradoxically, how dear a price we must pay to receive what is, finally, a gift from Him. When the Savior’s all and our all come together, we will find not only forgiveness of sin, “we shall see him as he is,” and “we shall be like him.28


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Posted in doctrine, Happiness, Jesus Christ, LDS History, my thoughts

An Asterisk on the Discussion About The LDS Church’s Policy Towards Children of Same-Sex Couples.

Whew, what a day.

News sources all over are reporting on the LDS Church’s new standards for membership for the children of same sex couples, and there are a LOT of hurt feelings going around.

I’m going to try and summarize some of the discussions that I’ve seen and participated in here, along with the policy itself.

The Policy

First same sex marriage is grounds for a disciplinary hearing.

Second children of same sex couples must be legally adults and disavow the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage before being baptized.

What people are saying.

The word that is getting used in almost every discussion is this:


As in: Why is the church punishing the children?


We believe all man will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgressions.

and so on.

I want to place an asterisk by that. I want to have us pause for a minute and examine that word, and the assumption that goes along with it.

First: I think it’s important to take a step back and first ask, “Who is doing the punishing?”

The man behind the curtain

For the ex-Mormon or the non-Mormon, the answer is obvious: “It’s the church,” they say. But we, as believers don’t hold to that. We don’t consider the church to be an autonomous being, but rather the extension of God’s will on the earth as administered through his ordained servants.

In other words, when we say something like “the church did ___” or “the church says ___” we need to be able to easily transpose the word “God” in and have it be just as valid. “God did ___” or “God says ___.”  Obviously we rarely do that, but the principle is sound.

In this instance, it’s especially apt since God himself has maintained tight control over who will be baptized and when. He has not only supplied us with strict guidelines for baptism, but he has maintained control over the authority to administer the ordinances and determined when such ordinances and authority would even exist on the earth.

In other words, if there is a standard on who shall or shall not receive any ordinance, we must be willing to consider it as being from God, and not just imperfect leaders.

How handy inspired but imperfect leaders in the Church are as focal points for our frustrations, especially if circumstances require them to suffer in silence! Having confidence in leaders who keep confidences is part of sustaining them.

Oliver Cowdery fell short of the coveted privilege of translating. He was told, “Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.” (D&C 9:6.) Emma Smith was likewise told to “murmur not” when certain things were withheld from her. (D&C 25:4.)

Neal A Maxwell, Murmur Not

Is it punishment?

If the bar for punishment is being denied the Holy Ghost for any period of time, then we’re all punished before age 8, and all people born between year 90 and year 1830 or so are also being punished, and all black people were punished until 1978, and anybody living in China is being punished, and so on and so on.

Remember that God operates on an eternal timeline. Nobody, nowhere, no time, is ever denied baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the vast majority of the world it will come only after death. None of those people are being punished. God could have given a new dispensation with the ordinances of salvation at any time he wanted. We do not accuse him of having punished those who did not receive them because the miracle of the restored gospel helps us know better.

We know that salvation is given freely to all. That some of us don’t have every single opporutnity is just one natural consequence of a fallen world. Every day we are denied blessings, opportunities, and gifts. That’s part of life. That we’re suddenly aware of something we’re missing out on does not suddenly make it a punishment to not have it. Instead it becomes a sacred opportunity for us to recognize how we might achieve more than we have.

God is at the helm. No one has been punished or denied exaltation to any degree.  God has a plan not only for the human race but for each individual.

A full understanding is impossible; we simply have to trust in what the Lord has told us, knowing enough, however, to realize that we are not dealing with guarantees from God but extra opportunities—and heavier responsibilities….

One of the most helpful—indeed very necessary—parallel truths to be pondered when studying this powerful doctrine of foreordination is given in the revelation of the Lord to Moses in which the Lord says, “And all things are present with me, for I know them all” (Moses1:6). God does not live in the dimension of time as do we. Moreover, since “all things are present with” God, his is not simply a predicting based solely upon the past. In ways which are not clear to us, he actually sees, rather than foresees, the future—because all things are, at once, present before him.

In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord described himself as “The same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:2). From the prophet Nephi we receive the same basic insight in which we, likewise, must trust: “But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men” (1 Nephi 9:6). It was by divine design that Mary became the mother of Jesus. Further, Lucy Mack Smith, who played such a crucial role in the rearing of Joseph Smith, did not come to that assignment by chance.

One of the dimensions of worshipping a living God is to know that he is alive and living in the sense of seeing and acting. He is not a retired God whose best years are past, to whom we should pay a retroactive obeisance, worshipping him for what he has already done. He is the living God who is, at once, in all the dimensions of time—the past and present and future—while we labor constrained by the limitations of time itself.

Neal A Maxwell, Meeting the Challenges of Today

While some things feel like punishments to us today, may we never lose trust in our Father and his ability to steer with precision our lives, our church, and our families.

The “why” behind the now will become clear with time. It may very well be that a mistake was made somewhere, but it may very well be that no mistake was made and this policy is indeed the will of the Lord. However things shake out, let us sustain our leaders and trust our God.

Posted in Uncategorized

Self Driving Cars and the Rebirth of Consecration.

Tesla recently unveiled its new “autopilot” feature. Right now it isn’t quite as “automatic” as the name suggests, but the cars can, with some impressive accuracy, keep the car in its own lane, parallel park, and even safely change lanes while on the move. It’s the future! But perhaps most impressive is its ability to brake without driver input when it senses danger, as happened in this video:

The driver was letting the car “take the wheel” so to speak, and was headed down a dark road on a rainy night.  Before he could even react, another car cut in front of him. But the “autopilot” feature saved them both.

This kind of technology is very exciting, and, with the continuing development of self-driving cars, things are only getting more and more exciting, and, importantly, more safe.

As a strange side-note, it also opens the door to a slightly more “Zion” lifestyle than we’ve been able to manage for over a century.

My first encounter with Zion

The first time the idea of “Zion” (meaning a community where the members share all things “equally” for mutual benefit) really hit home with me was when an institute teacher told me the story of his neighbor in the suburbs when he lived somewhere in the Midwest.

This neighbor had a tool shed that was well stocked. It included a wide variety of hand tools, power tools, and even a lawnmower and yard equipment. Apparently, the neighbor would walk around the street to each house on the block and personally invite each household to come to his house, walk around back to the shed, and borrow whatever they needed whenever they needed it.

For the most part it worked fine. Tools came and went. Once in a while a tool would disappear for a long time and so it would be replaced. When asked what he felt about this, the neighbor would shrug with a smile and say “I guess they must have needed it more than I.”

One day, the neighbor got a pickup truck and parked it in his driveway. Once again he made the rounds to all the houses on the block. “If you ever need a truck for any reason, feel free to use mine. The keys are under the mat.”

By the time my institute teacher had moved away, the truck was still there, and still got frequent use by members of the community, though the teacher admitted to me that he could not imagine ever being so generous with his own property.

The question about lawnmowers

After relating this story, the teacher asked me, “How many lawn mowers do you need on a block of 10 houses?”

“Uh…” I said smartly.

“Okay, look at it this way,” he said. “If there are 10 houses each with a lawn, how many lawn mowers do you think there are on that block?

“Well,” I considered it for a moment, “probably 9 or 10?”

The teacher nodded. “That would be pretty normal. Most people just go buy a lawnmower as a part of how they take care of their home. How much does a lawnmower cost?” he asked.

“I don’t know, 200 bucks?”

“Okay, so let’s say there’s two thousand dollars of lawn mower on that block. Now let’s look at this scripture we’re studying today.”

27 And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.

28 And thus they did establish the affairs of the church; and thus they began to have continual peace again, notwithstanding all their persecutions.

29 And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need—an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth.

30 And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.

31 And thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy than those who did not belong to their church.

“How is it that sharing their property led to greater wealth for members of the church?” my teacher asked me.

I didn’t get it, but he explained, “Or, to put it another way, how many lawn mowers do 10 houses really need?

“Oh,” I said, and it started to make sense. “Oh, I guess just a couple would be enough to mow those lawns.”

“Right,” he said. “So if they decided to buy and share a couple lawn mowers, how much money goes back in their pockets? Around 1600 dollars?”

I nodded. This was pretty neat.

“Now imagine it was cars,” he said. “How many cars are on that block of 10 houses do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe one or two for each house.”

“So let’s say it’s only one and a half for each house, and each car costs 5000 dollars. That’s 75,000 dollars on that block spent on cars. But how many cars do those houses need?”

I thought he was getting silly. Was he really suggesting the people on this imaginary block reduce their number of cars by even a quarter? Surely it would be impossible. After all, you can’t really reduce the number of cars since cars go with you wherever you go, right? I mean, maybe you could have one or two people carpool, but that’s it. Right?


Getting silly.

But now we’re seeing something… silly.

Something wonderfully beyond silly.

Imagine arriving at your work in your sensibly affordable pre-owned 2025 self-driving vehicle. You had enjoyed reading the morning news on the car dashboard as it drove you to work with no input required from you. Now, as you settle in at your desk, an alert pops up on your phone. It’s Uber. Somebody needs a ride to the airport.

With a few button taps you accept the job and send your car to go pick up the fare and deliver him to the airport while you continue working at your desk.

Or maybe it’s not Uber. Maybe it’s your neighbor wondering if she can get a lift to the grocery store. Maybe it’s the missionaries wondering if you can drop them off at their zone meeting this afternoon. Perhaps you’re not willing to risk your fancy car with strangers on apps like Uber and Lyft, but somebody you know already? You’d consider it, right? If all it took was a few button presses to send the car on its way to a friend?

We are not far from this.

Imagine being one of several self-driving-car owners on your street, and being able to be safer than simply sticking the keys under the mat, but still offering free rides to enough people to allow your community to save a few thousand dollars on transportation costs.

Technology is opening the way towards greater individual generosity on our parts, and perhaps bringing us one step closer to Zion.

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Posted in my thoughts

Loaves and Lazarus: An Interesting Take on “Jesus Wept.”

Jesus wept.

 Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!

-John 11:35-36

An interesting thing happens in John, chapter 11. Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus: “Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.”

Jesus’ response is fascinating. He says “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” And then He decides He and the disciples will stay where they are for 2 days.

What’s interesting about it, of course, is that Lazarus actually DOES die…. for a while.  Further, it’s obvious that Jesus knows what’s going on, despite not being there, as He tells the apostles after two days have passed, “Lazarus is dead.”

So then, why the weeping?

I mean, He knows what’s going on. But, more than that, he has power over death. Why weep?

A teacher in Sunday school suggested that the answer is because of Christ’s perfect empathy and sensitivity. He wasn’t weeping for himself, for the pain of losing a loved one to death. After all, He knows that death is in his control. Instead his sadness was because a loved one had to go through something like this.

In other words, perhaps Christ’s suffering in this instance was sadness that his loved ones had to suffer even though he had the power to end it instantly.

Imagine how hard it would be. Knowing perfectly that your beloved friend was suffering and dying. Knowing you could fix it instantly, at will. Yet being perfectly obedient to the plan of the Father, which includes life, suffering, and death.

As president of Brigham Young University, Jeffrey R. Holland made this observation:

“If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”

Whatever else Satan may do, he will certainly appeal to our appetites. Far better to play on natural, acknowledged needs than struggle to plant in us artificial ones. Here Jesus experiences the real and very understandable hunger for food by which he must sustain his mortal life. We would not deny anyone this relief; certainly we would not deny the Son of Man. Israel had its manna in the wilderness. This is Israel’s God. He has fasted for forty days and forty nights. Why not eat? He seems ready to break his fast, or surely must soon. Why not simply turn the stones to bread and eat?

The temptation is not in the eating. He has eaten before, he will soon eat again, and he must eat for the rest of his mortal life. The temptation, at least the part I wish to focus on, is to do it this way, to get his bread—his physical satisfaction, relief for his human appetite—the easy way, by abuse of power and without a willingness to wait for the right time and the right way. It is the temptation to be the convenient Messiah. Why do things the hard way? Why walk to the shop—or bakery? Why travel all the way home? Why deny yourself satisfaction when with ever such a slight compromise you might enjoy this much-needed nourishment? But Christ will not ask selfishly for unearned bread. He will postpone gratification, indefinitely if necessary, rather than appease appetite—even ravenous appetite—with what is not his.

Perhaps Christ’s prime characteristic is his perfect obedience to the Father.  This means that sometimes he has to stand by while we endure challenges and suffering. Yet even as he waits for the right moment to bless us, he suffers keenly by our pains. We are never alone. He weeps with us, and for us.

In all their afflictions he was afflicted. And the angel of his presence saved them; and in his love, and in his pity, he redeemed them, and bore them, and carried them all the days of old;

Posted in Jesus Christ, miracles, The Bible, The Nature of God

When is it okay to correct the Sunday School teacher?

I remember an experience I had as I became old enough to attend grown-up gospel doctrine class.

One Sunday, sitting with my parents, we were listening to the lesson. A couple of the old high priests really dominated the discussion by always speaking and dropping in all the extra fascinating facts that the lesson didn’t cover. “Did you know they found an altar with the world Nahom on it?” “Well the lesson doesn’t mention it, but there’s a chapter of Isaiah which applies directly. I’ll read it aloud now.”

After a few of these types of informative comments my mother leaned over and whispered to me, “just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to share it.”

For some reason I have remembered that moment vividly for years. It was a perfect teaching moment and I think about it every time I’m tempted to share a random fact in Sunday school.

She later became a teacher in that class and told me that she never prepared a lesson. She didn’t need to. She would “throw them a bone and let them gnaw on it for an hour.” (Her words.  Sorry, Mom, guess you can’t share this one on facebook.)

Sunday School corrections

“I’d like to point out that the Joseph Smith translation goes against the teacher’s interpretation in the following ways…”

Self Restraint and the Learning Experience

The idea of self restraint as being valuable to the learning experience hadn’t occurred to me before, but she was right. That class was eventually divided into 2 classes: one for the older crowd intent on dumping the whole load of hay, and one for the younger crowd where actual discussion could happen.

Despite the fact that an immense amount of data and insight was being shared by these more vocal (and knowledgeable) members, the good desires and enthusiasm of the old folks had stifled the learning environment because it had not been tempered with self restraint.

Elder Maxwell, in his final talk, put it this way:

Having virtually no quantitative skills, I was seldom if ever able to help our children with math and scientific subjects. One day our high school daughter Nancy asked me for “a little help” regarding a Supreme Court case, Fletcher v. Peck. I was so eager to help after so many times of not being able to help. At last a chance to unload! Out came what I knew about Fletcher v. Peck. Finally my frustrated daughter said, “Dad, I need only a little help!” I was meeting my own needs rather than giving her “a little help.”

We worship a Lord who teaches us precept by precept, brethren, so even when we are teaching our children the gospel, let’s not dump the whole load of hay.

I believe that the spirit can prompt us to share appropriately, but always in the right setting, and in the right moment, never simply to teach what we want to have taught; and especially never in an effort to gratify our pride.

Our education, and our responsibility towards others.

Speaking of pride as a motivator for sharing, I know I have this problem.  I enjoy teaching, but part of my motive is certainly to entertain and to be seen as an authority. Sometimes that has led me to range far afield from the lesson, and usually meets with scowls and confusion from the class. What I forget, in my enthusiasm for sharing my knowledge, is that the Holy Ghost is the true teacher, not me.

Elder Hafen put it this way:

I have seen some of these people try out their new intellectual tools in some context like a priesthood quorum or Sunday School class. A well-meaning teacher will make a point that they think is a little silly, and they will feel an irresistible urge to leap to their feet and pop the teacher’s bubble. If they are successful, they begin looking for other opportunities to point out the exception to any rule anybody can state. They begin to delight in cross-examination of the unsuspecting, just looking for somebody’s bubble up there floating around so that they can pop it with their shiny new pin. And in all that, they fail to realize that when some of those bubbles pop, out goes the air; and with it goes much of the feeling of trust, loyalty, harmony, and sincerity so essential to preserving the Spirit of the Lord.

If that begins to happen in your ward, in your home, or in your marriage, you might have begun to destroy the fragile fabric of trust that binds us together in all loving relationships. People in your ward may come away from some of their encounters with you wondering how you can possibly have a deep commitment to the Church and do some of the things you do.

I am not suggesting that we should always just smile and nod our approval, implying that everything is wonderful and that our highest hope is that everybody have a nice day. That is level one. I am suggesting that you realize the potential for evil as well as good that may come with what a college education can do to your mind and your way of dealing with other people.

Love is Not Blind Bruce C. Hafen [emphasis added]

To build on what Elder Hafen said, it’s important to recognize that our knowledge must be balanced with our charity – love for others.

On knowing and caring

learning in sunday schoolAn example exists in the scriptures, when the Corinthian saints had written to Paul. They asked him about eating food that had been used in religious ceremonies – specifically, was it okay to eat food that had been “sacrificed” to idols?

Paul’s response was basically “Look, you and I both know that the sacrificing to idols is just a sham and it’s just meat.It literally doesn’t matter because the idol isn’t real. We know that.”

His exact words:

We all have knowledge. . . .

As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.

For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth . . . ,

But to us there is but one God, the Father. . . .

But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. [1 Corinthians 8:1, 4–6, 8]

This response would have made the Greeks very happy, since knowledge was so highly prized in their culture. Bible Scholar Richard Hays says the Corinthian inquirers might well have thought that “the strong Christian, armed with the appropriate gnosis, [knowledge] can go without compunction to the pagan temple and eat whatever is offered there; indeed, doing so may be a way to demonstrate one’s spiritual maturity and freedom.” Further, Hays theorizes the inquirers “probably appealed to Paul to set the record straight by encouraging the weak to overcome their qualms and enter the world of spiritual freedom enjoyed by those who possess gnosis.”

This, of course, has echoes in our own society. The pride of the intellectual or enlightened is well known. I imagine that you, like me, could easily name a dozen people who love to engage in acts meant to demonstrate their maturity and freedom. Many of them are no doubt happy to share their enlightened opinions with you on facebook at a moments notice.

But Paul isn’t done with the saints. Knowledge, maturity, freedom, enlightenment – none of those things are as important as the world makes them out to be.

Kevin J. Worthen tells what happens next:

Paul first reminds them, in chapter 8, that “there is not in every man that knowledge” and that “some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol” (v. 7). He then warns them to “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak” (v. 9), explaining that

if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;

And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? [vv. 10–11]

Paul thus appeals to the Corinthians who thought they had full knowledge concerning the subject to consider the impact of their actions on their fellow Saints. Although the “educated” might well understand that there was no religious significance to the consumption of meat offered to dumb idols, others might not have the same knowledge, and seeing the well-educated Saints eating at the idol’s temple, these so-called “weaker” Saints might well assume that there was something to this idol worship. Thus the knowledge of the inquiring Corinthian members of the Church might lead to the destruction of their fellow Saints for whom Christ had given his life.

Given the differences in these two perspectives, Paul informs the Saints of the course that he will follow: “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth” (v. 13). Having the perspectives given by both knowledge and charity, Paul apparently opts for the course indicated by the latter. He seems to be saying that although knowledge may teach that one can eat meat offered to idols without incurring any spiritual damage, charity demonstrates that such conduct may constitute a “sin . . . against the brethren” (v. 12). Given that choice, Paul not surprisingly decides that he will eat no meat offered to idols, even if he “knows” in one sense that it does not really matter whether or not he does.

Although Paul saves his personal resolution of the issue until the last verse of chapter 8, he had clearly indicated to the inquirers where he was headed with his summary of the matter in verse 1 when, in answer to their assertion that “we all have knowledge,” he stated, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.”

Therefore, what?

So the Sunday school teacher just flubbed. What do you do now? Do you correct his mistake?

Knowledge alone would say that you absolutely must, for if knowledge is the greatest virtue, then error is the greatest sin.

But Charity says that what’s most important is how your words will affect others in the room. Will your contributions edify? Will your words drive out trust and the spirit? Is the subject so important that accuracy is vital to the principle being taught? You’ll need the guidance of the Spirit to come to the best conclusion, but with a pure desire to do what is charitable, you’re starting out on the right foot.

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Posted in humility, my thoughts, Questions

Learning Pride

Forgive me if, once again, I get a little personal.

A few months ago I noticed my behavior had changed.  I first noticed it in my online interactions. I was getting into debates more, and being less sensitive to others when I should have been more delicate with their feelings. I kept getting upset at people who were, well, “wrong.”

Finally, after one particularly bad day not long after I abandoned imgur, I also called it quits on reddit and pared down my facebook interactions. I knew I was repeatedly crossing the lines of civility and I didn’t know why, but I felt it was safe to assume that these digital interactions were simply having a bad effect on me. Usually, taking a couple days away from online media helps me re-center and come back better than ever, so I felt that an extended break would be ideal for improving my behavior online.

Last night, though, I sent an email to a professional with whom I had been working. To my surprise he was obviously upset, and his partner called up my partners and had a telephone “war” about my behavior.

I looked back at my email and, sure enough, it was pretty brutal.  And what was worse, I recognized much of the same language that used to offend me so badly when I was the one in the role of hired contractor.

I was mad at myself.  I thought that the corrupting influence of negative online spaces had been eliminated. Why, then, was I still behaving like I had just had a multi-day debate with an internet troll?

What happened to nice me?

I realized that the only other change in my life that corresponds with the changes in my behavior is the new job I have where I work with some high-powered, successful entrepreneurs. I now interact with them on a daily basis and have lengthy meetings each week. In those meetings these guys often talk about how they’re going to teach me to be more “aggressive” and how to think bigger than I have been.

And it’s been good, I think.  Or thought. I mean, business-wise, we’re more successful than we’ve been ever before. And I’m really enjoying embracing my new, more assertive self.

But now I’m starting to see the negatives. What surprises me the most (so far) is how much easier it has been to invite prideful ideas into my thinking.

Scary Pride, Friendly Pride

A year ago, if I had been online having a discussion about the church, I would sometimes (often) get into debates about a certain point of doctrine, history, etc. However, I could easily recognize that feeling that always came when things had gone too far. That anger. That feeling of self-righteousness.

(also, as a side note, there’s a facial expression that goes along with it. It’s raised eyebrows. Watch somebody the next time they’re “correcting” an egregious error. Eyebrows up.)

Anyway, when I felt that feeling I committed to shut down the discussion. I would just walk away. I felt that it was better to avoid contention than to “win.” In that way I hoped I was combating pride. I believe I was.

That was the scary pride. The kind of pride that you can feel because anger’s umbilical cord is still attached. Once it’s identified it’s easy to curtail.

But now I’m experiencing something else. I find myself in a position of some authority. And you know what happens when people get authority, right?

What was most surprising is that I didn’t notice it happening at all. I didn’t feel it. The only hints were in how people around me started reacting. I never felt the anger that came with self-righteous debate. I never felt the raised eyebrows of “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

The poison of pride has been undetectable to me so far. But it explains everything. The anger, the ‘superiority’ language, the abrupt communication. Yes, I’ve been training myself to be more assertive, but, in gaining more power and authority, I’ve also awakened a weakness I never realized was in me: eliminating kindness and compassion for the sake of being “right.”

I’m really amazed at how easy it has been to be more mean. How there’s no warning. How you actually feel better about yourself even as you become slightly worse as a person.

I’m starting to understand why President Benson said “Pride is the universal sin, the great vice.”

I’m going to work on this. I’m going to have to make a conscious effort to be kind, and to make serving others my top priority. I’ll keep you all updated.

In the mean time, I’ll try to have more gospel related posts here soon.

Posted in Uncategorized

Distractions, Addictions, and Revelation: A Neat Sunday Experience

Just a note to share a neat experience I had today in ward conference.

The story begins years before church this morning.  I had started using an imgur app as a time-filler about a year or two ago when I wanted to avoid spending hours and hours on reddit around bedtime. So, instead of spending time debating some meaningless meta-Mormonism, I would turn on imgur, laugh at whatever the days funny pictures were, and go to bed.

Well, that time spent on imgur seemed so harmless and relatively wholesome that I really embraced it. The vast majority of images seemed positive and brought a smile. Soon a lot of my free time was spent “avoiding my addictions” by brainless image surfing on imgur. I felt like I was doing a good thing by escaping some of the negative time-sucks in my life. However it wasn’t long before I found myself skimming through the images instead of doing things that I should do. (not in a major way, but still, it wasn’t just empty time filler any more.)

Moreover, I started to notice something really disturbing. Here’s how I noticed it: As we sat in sacrament meeting, during a particularly boring talk, I found myself pulling out my phone for a few minutes. I’m not getting anything out of church, I reasoned, might as well get a few smiles. Within just a few moments of imgur browsing, I felt a physical sensation of the spirit withdrawing. It was like a room going dark when I hadn’t even noticed that the lights were on in the first place.

I thought maybe I had imagined it, but I noticed it happen again and again. If I let myself drop back into “the world” on Sunday by bringing imgur into my day, I felt it. I never really noticed when the spirit came into my life, but I certainly could detect when it left.

So fast forward to today: In a moment of boredom as the family prepared for church, I turned on my smartphone and opened my go-to “distract me” app. I figured “well, we’re not at church, it’s not going to take away the spirit since I haven’t done anything to bring the spirit yet, today.”

The top post of the day on imgur: “How to take dick pics.”

Disgusted, I flipped past, but every post seemed to be some version of vile, crude, or negative. What had happened to the days where most posts were nice, family friendly affairs?

Well I certainly felt like that was a terrible way to prepare for church, so I shut it off.

Then, today, at ward conference, I listened to a special musical number. It wasn’t anything super special. A decent soloist and an interesting arrangement of a hymn. I put my head down and focused on the music. It was nice. It made me want to try arranging music. It made me feel good. I recognized the spirit there.

And I looked down at the smartphone in my hand and realized I didn’t want to step away from this feeling any more. So, before the song was over, I had deleted the imgur app and a few other distractions.

I felt good about it. But the spirit wasn’t done with me yet.

The stake leadership taught classes today. What did they choose to speak about? Addiction. Admittedly, their topic was food addiction, but still, I was blessed to recognize the application of the principles they taught for my own life and my addiction to entertainment.

In the third hour, the stake president then taught about the importance of family counsels, of coming together as a family and helping each other not only calendar our lives, but to improve. He spoke about how young people today are entering the workforce without basic work and communication skills due to lives spent “in distraction,” and I thought about my own children and my example for them. I recognized the prompting of the Holy Ghost there, teaching me that I would  need to be proactive in the lives of my children to help them be free from the common addictions of our time.

I testify that the spirit teaches each of us what we need to learn as we do our best to prepare to receive the spirit, and preserve that environment in our hearts. Today as we went in the spirit of fasting to church we were truly blessed and taught and prepared to receive the lessons the Lord had given to his inspired leaders. I’m grateful to God for allowing us these kinds of revelatory and even life-changing experiences through something as simple as church attendance.

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Posted in Blessings, Happiness

Understanding the Tough Questions About Mormonism

Have you ever wondered “what are the hard questions?” If you’re like me, you probably have been curious more than once. But that’s not what this post is about. This time we ask the question: “Why are they hard?”

I’ve often wondered why certain people have a hard time with certain aspects of the church, and others don’t. For example, people who have left the church often discuss their “shelf breaking” question – in other words, what was the tough question about Mormonism that was too tough. There’s never a single answer. It’s never the same thing for everyone.

There’s probably a few reasons why this is the case, most notably, perhaps, is the truth that there is no silver bullet – there is no single thing that “breaks” the church for everyone. For some it’s questions of church history. For some it’s questions of revelation. For others it’s questions about Joseph Smith.

Interestingly, a question that one might consider a huge challenge to faith, another might consider no challenge at all.

So what, then, do all these potential challenges to faith, phrased as questions, have in common? They all represent instances of our individual understanding of reality seeming to conflict with our individual understanding of an ideal as presented by the church.

The Real vs The Ideal.

Here’s an example: One person may have an understanding about revelation that includes the ideal that the prophet is always going to “get it right.” This is probably a fairly common ideal held by many members of the church. He is a prophet, after all, they reason. The Lord won’t let him get it wrong.  Then somebody comes along with new information which challenges that fact – an example of when the prophet seemed to get it wrong. Maybe super wrong. And this information is usually framed in the form of a question.

For example, “Why don’t modern translations of the papyrus match what Joseph Smith translated in the Book of Abraham?”  The effort here is to cause discomfort by pushing an understanding of reality (the modern translation) against the ideal (that a prophet can’t “get it wrong.”) The hope of the questioner, of course, is that you’ll panic, stop thinking, and accept the implied premise that Joseph must have been a fraud.

But this question, like all the “tough questions,”  is leading, and forcing a fight that doesn’t need to exist.

The Question Itself vs How To Question.

It turns out that it’s not just the topic of a question that makes it one of the “tough ones,” but the way that it is asked. Consider the following in light of that papyrus question:

Instead of forcing a conflict between Joseph Smith’s calling as prophet and the modern translation of ancient texts, a better set of questions might include things like “If we assume modern translations of the papyrus are correct, what can we learn about how Joseph Smith received revelation?” or “What does Joseph Smith’s experience in trying to translate teach me about revelation for myself?” or “What can I learn about my assumptions based on this information?”

These types of questions can lead to greater light and knowledge, greater truth, and a deeper understanding that the simple assumption of “prophets always get it right” failed to provide. When coupled with the guidance of the spirit, honest questions can bring incredible truths and deep satisfaction to the seeker of knowledge.

As another example, somebody might ask “how can a church that is true ever have a history of polygamy?”

But do you think a person asking that question really wants an answer, or do you think they’ve already made up their minds and simply want to use the question to convince you to agree with them?

Of course, this is another example of a question meant to prove a point, rather than actually gain knowledge.

In this case, the question isn’t being asked in the form of “how am I to understand polygamy in the context of the church,” but rather “how does polygamy show the church is not true?” Can you see the difference? One way of asking about polygamy presupposes the church is false, and the other way of asking seeks to understand without a bias.

One might ask other “hard questions,” but frame them in faithful ways:

“How can I learn from Joseph Smith’s mistakes? What do his flaws teach me about my own relationship with God?”

“What can I learn about revelation by studying the ways the church has developed over time?”

“Are there examples of prophets who made mistakes in the scriptures, and what can that teach me about the church today?”

Reframing and Faith

Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently spoke about faith and questions, and how questions are meant to be born of an earnest desire to learn rather than a self-righteous desire to preach “truth.” Here’s how he put it:

When doubt or difficulty come, do not be afraid to ask for help. If we want it as humbly and honestly as this father did, we can get it. The scriptures phrase such earnest desire as being of “real intent,” pursued “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.” I testify that in response to that kind of importuning, God will send help from both sides of the veil to strengthen our belief…

Hope on. Journey on. Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe.

I believe this advice is telling us to back away from the questions that are meant to inspire doubt, and ask them in truly open and honest ways. Instead of questions that try to corner the listener into a certain conclusion, we should be asking God what we’re meant to learn with the new data we have, and allowing him to teach us instead of relying on our own understanding, or worse yet, the understanding of the hypocrites and deceivers who carry their own agendas.

As we rely on the Lord for answers, we naturally begin to recognize that the questions with which we grapple might shake our world view, but can’t remove us from our relationships with God if we don’t let them. This faith in God becomes a foundation on which we can rely as we re-evaluate our understandings of the real and the ideal and gain greater light and knowledge.

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Posted in Anti-Mormon, LDS History, my thoughts, Questions, Struggles

Mormon’s Mistake

So as we read through Alma 54, Mormon tells the story of Moroni fighting the Lamanites and dealing with the loss of his Nephites as well as the problem of the Lamanite prisoners he held. Here’s the verse:

“Now the Lamanites had taken many women and children, and there was not a woman nor a child among all the prisoners of Moroni, or the prisoners whom Moroni had taken; therefore Moroni resolved upon a stratagem to obtain as many prisoners of the Nephites from the Lamanites as it were possible.”

Why did he make that correction (underlined)? He had been clear, hadn’t he? If writing involved scraping letters into metal plates, adding that extra few words would have been time consuming, and he had been clear enough in the earlier part of the sentence, right? “Not a woman nor a child among all the prisoners of Moroni.” Makes sense, so why clarify with “or the prisoners whom Moroni had taken?”

Take a look at the later reference to prisoners in the same verse: “Moroni resolved upon a stratagem to obtain as many prisoners of the Nephites from the Lamanites as it were possible.”Wait a minute. Prisoners of the Nephites? The Lamanites are the prisoners of the Nephites. Mormon is obviously talking about Nephite prisoners, so why does he say “prisoners of the Nephites” instead? Moreover why doesn’t he correct this obvious mistake?

Why correct “prisoners of Moroni” when it makes perfect sense, but not correct “prisoners of the Nephites” when it doesn’t make sense?

Problems with Prisoners

The “prisoners of the Lamanites” phrase comes up several times in Mormon’s writing, always referring to Lamanite prisoners held by Nephites. In general, the reader understands that Mormon’s “of” means something like “from” or “out of” and not “belonging to.” However it causes a certain amount of awkwardness, and could easily cause misunderstanding were it not for context.Yet Mormon’s phrase “prisoners of Moroni” is easy to understand, and not likely to cause misunderstanding. Yet Mormon feels the need to clarify his meaning. Why? Clearly he felt that “prisoners of Moroni” could cause confusion. Thus it would seem that, for Mormon, the “of” in these prisoner statements always meant something like “from” or “out of” or as a descriptor connection rather than just a possession connection.

In other words, when talking about prisoners, the word we call “of” might be better translated as “of type.” For example “prisoners [of type] Lamanite.” or “prisoners [of type] Nephite.” With that in mind, the phrase “prisoners of Moroni” becomes almost nonsensical in that form. “prisoners [of type] Moroni” seems like a group of prisoners, all of whom were Moroni.

Construct State

What we’re seeing here is an example of something called the “Construct State.” In Hebrew, as well as in a few other languages, two nouns are connected with the descriptive word second. This is different from English, where we usually put the descriptive word first. For example, an iron rod, or a brick house, or a metal car. In the Hebrew it would be “rod iron,” or “house brick,” or “car metal.” Thus, when translated from Hebrew to English, if word order is preserved an “of” is added for clarity. “rod of iron” “house of brick” “car of metal.”In the case of the prisoners, Mormon was writing something like “prisoners Lamanites.” To him this was a clear description: Prisoners who were Lamanite. But when he wrote “prisoners Moroni” he realized it could be taken as a mistake – as “prisoners who were Moroni.” Thus the need to clarify.

Weaknesses to Strengths

Mormon’s mistake becomes an asset to us today. By taking the time to clarify what he wrote when he felt he had done wrong, it shows the consistency of his language in all the places where he didn’t make a mistake, and gives us strong evidence of translation from Hebrew to English because of it.

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Posted in Theory, thoughts on scriptures

“Be One” – Symbols of unity and temple worship.

“Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I am. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” – D&C 38:27

My first encounter with the symbols of “unity” came in a presentation given by an institute teacher in 1999. He gave a slideshow about temple symbols. I don’t remember much, but I remember two slides.

touchThe first was this closeup of the “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here is a great visual representation of the temple, he said. The place where man and God come together.

The temple is a place where heaven and earth meet together. We go to be elevated, and we invite God to come down to teach, heal, and empower us.

The second symbol that I recall from the presentation was the star of David.

The Star of David

star of davidThe hexagram,  or Star of David is created by the intersection of an upward pointing triangle and a downward pointing triangle. The earth reaching upwards and the heavens reaching down. This, too, might be used to represent the temple. This symbol has been used in many cultures for thousands of years as a sign of unity and power. It has been called the Seal of Solomon, who built the first permanent temple in Israel. Legend says that Solomon had this symbol on his ring and it gave him power to command demons.

It has represented the union of male and female, and the concept of perfection. In the Hindu religion, this symbol has represented the combination of fire and water, male and female, and the heart chakra. At various times and in various other beliefs it is seen as the combination of expansiveness and restrictiveness, of giving and receiving, intellect and emotion, and of compassion and discipline.

The hexagram represents the power to create new life, and to balance opposing forces. Those who could balance these forces were said to have great power. Additionally, this balance was seen as the center of the “tree of life” in ancient Israelite symbolic mysticism.

The hexagram serves as a powerful and simple introduction to a symbolic lesson. All ancient belief structures agree on one thing: finding balance in conflicting forces is the source of power and, especially, creation.

Square and Compass

square and compassA more obvious modern temple symbol is found in the square and compass. These symbols have also been in use for millenia as symbols of unity. The square (shape), created by the square (tool), has been used as a symbol for the earth. (Remember having heard of the “four corners” of the earth? That’s why.) While the circle, created by the compass, is a symbol for eternity or heaven. You’ll notice that the arrangement of the two tools together form the six points of a hexagram like the Star of David. Like the hexagram, this is also symbolic of male and female, the male represented by the compass, the female by the square.

So, again: female = square = earth = physical.  Male = circle / compass = heavens = spiritual. The symbol is complete only when these aspects are united.

These tools represent the power of measurement and creation, and indicates the master of this symbol has the power in both the heavens and  the earth, or over the material and spiritual.


You’ve probably noticed the combination of square and circle in the past. Take, for example, the famous “Vitruvian Man” as depicted on the right. The origin of this famous drawing comes from a roman architect named Vitruvius. Vitruvius believed that the limbs of a perfectly proportioned man fit into both the circle (representing the spiritual) and the square (representing the material). To him this was proof that man was the perfect marriage of both matter and spirit.

Nuwafuxi2In ancient China, the square and compass made an appearance in the hands of the couple who would re-populate the human race – Nuwa and FuXi. The male, FuXi is depicted holding the “female” square, and the female Nuwa is depicted holding the “male” compass. (Interesting!) They are often depicted wearing robes, ceremonial headpieces, with their arms to the square, and on a background of sun, moon, and stars. In the image here, they appear to be wearing an apron as well.

You notice that they seem to be intertwined snakes. While later believers taught that this meant Nuwa and Fuxi were literally serpent people, this is another symbol that goes back for thousands of years.

The Serpent

187px-Rod_of_Asclepius2The intertwined serpents represent healing powers, or unification of two. For example, the intertwined serpents in ancient Sumeria and Babylon represented the union of sun and moon or male and female. In ancient Israel, their single God was often represented as a pair of intertwined serpents representing the combination of male and female. (A concept that Mormons ought to feel is totally appropriate!)

The feathered serpent of the ancient mesoamerican religions also represented the unity of heaven and earth. Like the compass and square, feathers represented the divine nature, or the sky, and the snake represented the earthly nature, or the ground.

The serpents, sometimes depicted as one, sometimes as two, are a frequent symbol of healing. In the Sumerian caduceus, adopted by the greeks for Hermes, the snake on rod symbol was said to return life to the dead if they were touched by it.  Likewise, the single serpent rod, Asclepius, carried by Apollo, was a symbol of healing reminiscent of the brazen rod lifted by Moses in the wilderness which could heal those dying Israelites simply by their looking upon it.  Jesus made the symbolism of the serpent as a source of healing and life clear when he said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

The serpent represents unity, healing, and the power to overcome even death.

(As a side note, if the serpent is indeed the symbol of Christ, consider what it means about Satan that he is depicted as a snake in the Garden of Eden! Remember, his motive is to supplant Christ, to imitate and counterfeit.)

Face to Face

The last symbol is one that I feel I’m only beginning to understand, and could be misunderstanding. This is the symbol of being face to face representing the power of healing, empowering, and a return to life.

Elijah the prophet stayed with a widow and her son during a terrible famine. You remember the barrel of flour and the jar of oil that never ran out? Same story. What you may have forgotten was this part: At one point, the widow’s son gets sick and dies. Elijah takes the boy up to his room and prays for him. Then this:

“And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.” – 1 Kings 17:21-22

Where it says “he stretched himself upon the child” it means he laid down on top of the child. This would seem to be an anomalous method of healing, except that the same thing happens to Elisha:

“And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.” – 2 Kings 4:34-35

yangyinThis is pretty descriptive. This healing is also a type of symbolism. Imagine seeing this happen from the perspective of heaven, looking down. Where there was a dead body, a living, breathing prophet is lying. He symbolically puts himself in the place of the dead child – face to face, eye to eye, mouth to mouth. He puts his hands on the hands of the child and even goes so far as to move the body around, mimicking life. Then he walks around the room, and then returns to bed again. From a symbolic sense, the person is saying “look! There is life here! I’m seeing. I’m breathing. I’m moving and walking. I’m a prophet and I’m bringing life back to this child!” And in these cases, the combination of priesthood power and death equals a return to life. This wasn’t an Old Testament only thing, either. Paul did the same when he preached in Troas. A young man fell asleep on the third story and fell to his death. When he heard about it, Paul “went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him.” Again, the symbolic unification of life and death with the touch of the divine brings new life.

These scriptural account also serves as an endorsement of the message of the hexagram and other symbols: When heaven touches earth we get life, healing, miracles, and real power.

Behind-the-VeilYou see this in the account of Moses as well. At one point, Moses returns from speaking with God, yes, face to face, and it has transformed him! His face is so luminous that the people can’t stand to be around him. He is forced to wear a veil over his face when he speaks to the people. Thus Moses becomes himself yet another rendition of this symbol, speaking to the people face to face, from behind a veil, just as God speaks to us from behind a veil.


draper-mormon-temple-sealingFace to face conversation with God naturally brings up interesting thoughts about mirrors and eternity. Our temples are full of instances of mirrors, what might be mirror images, and face to face conversations. (yet notably, no temple rite is performed while an individual faces their own reflection in a mirror.) We know these instances often represent receiving the power of God, or of eternal increase.

For example, it is meaningful that our sealing rooms typically contain facing mirrors, creating an impression of eternity which is best seen when kneeling at an altar, participating in marriage – the union of male and female. This symbol teaches us that eternity is accessible through the unity of marriage.

Understanding some of these symbols can enhance our scripture study, our cultures, and temple worship. For example, in many modern weddings in many religions and cultures, the woman is covered with a veil. When we understand that anciently the female symbol often represented the worldly, or the physical, we can understand that one way of seeing this ancient custom may be that the wedding is a time when the spiritual should be ascendant, and the physical subdued, rather than a message of gender inequality.

Indeed, in the temple we are symbolically taught over and over and over again: Be one.

Be one with yourself by letting your physical side and your spiritual side come into balance, for there is power and knowledge. (Mosiah 3:19, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Galatians 5:17)

Be one with your spouse, for in that unity is the power of creation and exaltation. (D&C 131:1-2, Mark 10:6-8)

Be one with your people, for that is Zion, and the power to change the world through your united prayers. (D&C 97:21  , D&C 19:6)

Be one with God, for then you will receive all that he has. (D&C 84:36-38, Revelation 3:21)

In all these symbols, and temple interactions, we find a message that points to one thing, over and over again: The doctrine of Christ. Mercy’s answer to Justice. Christ *is* the unification of heaven and earth. He is man and God. He holds the power of life and death. He is our perfect example of being one with God.


Literally meaning “at-one-ment,” or reunification, the atonement is the ultimate act of unity and oneness. In his atonement the Savior not only paid a price, but experienced our pains and imperfections. (See Alma 7:11) He stood in our place, and suffered the penalty for our sins. He is already fully “one” with each of us. He waits for us to come to him and become one with him. Through the atonement, we experience the cleansing, healing, transformation and resurrection promised symbolically throughout time.

Josefa_de_Ayala_-_The_Sacrificial_Lamb_-_Walters_371193“I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world, even as many as will believe on my name, that they may become the sons of God, even one in me as I am one in the Father, as the Father is one in me, that we may be one.” – D&C 35:2

What does it take on our part? As Bruce C. Hafen said in his amazing talk, “The Atonement: All for All,” “Is it enough to merely believe in Christ? The man who found the pearl of great price gave “all that he had” for it. [In another example of symbolic parity], if we desire “all that the father hath,” God asks for all that we have. To qualify for such exquisite treasure, in whatever way is ours, we must give the way Christ gave—every drop He had: “How exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.”  Paul said,“If so be that we suffer with him,” we are “joint-heirs with Christ.” All of His heart, all of our hearts.

“What possible pearl could be worth such a price—for Him and for us? This earth is not our home. We are away at school, trying to master the lessons of “the great plan of happiness”  so we can return home and know what it means to be there. Over and over the Lord tells us why the plan is worth our sacrifice—and His. Eve called it “the joy of our redemption.” (Moses 5:11)  Jacob called it “that happiness which is prepared for the saints.” (2 Ne 9:43) Of necessity, the plan is full of thorns and tears—His and ours. But because He and we are so totally in this together, our being “at one” with Him in overcoming all opposition will itself bring us “incomprehensible joy.””(Alma 28:8)


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