I have seen Church members react in at least three different ways when they believe they are obedient and yet are unhappy. One way that obedient-but-unhappy Mormons react in such situations is to “wait it out.” This approach is common when someone experiences a tragedy or other life experience that one would expect to naturally produce feelings of unhappiness, such as the loss of a loved one, marital difficulties, or economic hardship. There are many situations in life in which one would expect even the most obedient soul to experience an understandable diminution in their level of happiness.
Another way that obedient-but-unhappy Mormons react is to conclude that the Mormon “plan of happiness” must be fatally flawed. They conclude that the LDS Church and Mormonism are actually to blame for their unhappiness. And when they leave the Church, they report feelings of liberation from the “burdens” of Church membership, as well as excitement at the prospect of discovering the world through new eyes.
A third possible way that obedient-but-unhappy Mormons react to their situation is to evaluate themselves and determine whether they have correctly understood and implemented the Mormon “plan of happiness” in their lives. In some cases, they determine they were not actually as obedient as they had supposed themselves to be, and they make appropriate modifications to their lifestyle. Others who undergo this process of asking, “Lord, it is I?,” report having a major paradigm shift on life, the Gospel, and God, which brings them closer to obtaining the seemingly elusive goal of happiness.
I’ve personally experienced the intense frustration and sense of divine betrayal when, despite my greatest efforts to be obedient, I was still unhappy. I had one such experience was when I was in the Missionary Training Center, where I determined that I needed to make up for my disobedience as a teenager by being extra-obedient as a missionary. I knew I couldn’t live a perfect life, but I thought I could at least live one perfect day, and so I set out to do so. I decided to sacrifice my free time by dedicating every spare moment to studying the scriptures, memorizing hymns, or improving my proficiency in the Spanish language. So I did what I imagined Jesus would do while waiting in the lunch line: I memorized hymns. When we had a few rare moments of “down time” back at our dorm rooms, while the other missionaries in my district were unwinding and goofing around like 19 year-olds do, I was on my bunk reading the scriptures. I also decided I would learn Spanish faster if I didn’t speak a word of English, which of course drastically reduced the amount of socializing I was able to do. And lastly, I determined to strictly avoid all sarcasm, a defining characteristic of my personality, both in my words and in my thoughts about others.
As you might imagine, my quest to live a perfect day made me miserable. One of the first effects of my commitment to be perfectly obedient was that I immediately noticed how incredibly disobedient everyone else around me was behaving, which made me incredibly critical and judgmental of others. In my quest to attain spiritual knowledge, I socially isolated myself and became somewhat of a hermit, which of course made me feel very lonely. And my attempts to extinguish my sarcasm was utterly futile. If I recall correctly, the best I ever did was to make it until 10:35 a.m. without having any sarcastic thoughts about anyone around me. Of course, it only depressed me when I realized I’d have to wait until the next day to have another chance to live a perfect day.
One day after a couple weeks (which equates to 2 months in MTC-years) of this futile perfection-seeking, a missionary in my district said something that was totally irreverent and yet absolutely hilarious. Despite, my greatest efforts not to do so, I smiled and let out half a chuckle. At that moment, I realized it had been several days since I had smiled. I decided then and there to knock off my obsession with perfect obedience because it was making me miserable, and I was pretty sure that wasn’t what God wanted. So that night I made a deal with God: I’d be as obedient as possible without driving myself nuts and making myself miserable, if he’d cut me a little slack and not get too offended or upset with me if I happened to act like a 19 year-old from time-to-time. Our deal worked, and I had an amazingly fun and uplifting MTC and mission experience for the next two years.
Many years later, after marriage and children, I found myself in another rut of unhappiness that in retrospect I attribute almost entirely to the high-stress job I had at the time. There’s nothing like abject misery to force you to completely de-construct your life, your marriage, your family, your work, your church participation, and to figure out a new arrangement that works for you. Fortunately, that period of great unhappiness has turned out to be one of the most formative experiences of my life that has helped me become happier today than I can remember being in a long, long time.
As I de-constructed my understanding of the Gospel plan, I kept coming back to one fundamental, overriding truth about the purpose of my life, which was that, as Joseph Smith taught, happiness is the object and design of our existence. Or, as the Book of Mormon puts it, “men are that they might have joy.” With this ultimate object or goal in mind, I tried to figure out why I wasn’t experiencing happiness despite my being highly obedient, at least in my estimation. I recognized that much of my unhappiness might simply be the result of my high-stress job, but I wanted to discover whether there was something I hadn’t quite figured out yet about how to live the Gospel correctly.
I found my answer in Lehi’s dream in the Book of Mormon. After wading through the mists of darkness, Lehi found an iron rod that led along a strait and narrow path. By holding to the iron rod and staying on that strait and narrow path, Lehi found a tree whose fruit filled his soul with happiness. At first glance, this familiar story confirmed for me the familiar teaching that obedience (holding to the rod and staying on the strait and narrow) results in happiness (partaking of the fruit).
But as I read Nephi’s interpretation of his father Lehi’s dream for what must have been the thirty-seventh time, I finally realized that I had been overlooking the “missing link” between obedience and happiness. Nephi pointed out that the “tree of life” at the end of the strait and narrow path, which produced the joy-inducing fruit that his father ate, was a representation of the love of God. It donned on me then that love was the missing link between obedience and happiness in my life.
Happiness does not come from obedience, at least not directly. Happiness comes from God’s love. Feeling loved by God. Loving God. Loving our neighbor as God loves us. Feeling God’s love through our neighbors’ acts of kindness to us. Love is the source of true happiness.
Obedience is effective in helping us become happy only to the extent that we realize the purpose of God’s commandments is to teach us how to love God and love our neighbor. Paraphrasing Jesus, all commandments and scriptures can be boiled down to two things: loving God and loving our neighbor. This realization not only changed my motives for obeying, but also changed the way I obeyed.
I also realized that I had previously defined my obedience in terms of my ability to successfully abstain from that from which I had been commanded to abstain. In other words, I had focused my obedience on observing the “thou shalt not’s.” But, of course, observing the “thou shalt not’s” through abstinence doesn’t bring happiness. My heart isn’t filled with joy when I pass by the inviting aroma of a Starbuck’s without going in to partake. And I’m not overjoyed when I pass up numerous opportunities to drink alcohol on someone else’s dime at a work function. Observing the “thou shalt not’s” through abstinence might keep us free from addiction, disease, or unwanted pregnancy, but there is a big difference between avoiding unhappy circumstances and being happy.
I finally discovered that fulfilling the “thou shalt’s” is where the joy of Gospel living is found. Loving God by loving our fellow man. For me, love had been the missing link between obedience and happiness. If I wanted to be happier, I needed to love more. The next time I read the 15th chapter of John, I felt like I finally understood what Jesus told his disciples:
If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
Ultimately, my struggle with unhappiness and depression helped me formulate a personal mantra that I’ve tried to keep in mind ever since:
Happiness is the purpose of our existence.
Love is the source of happiness.
Obedience means loving God and loving our neighbor.
May God bless anyone reading this who is similarly struggling to be both obedient and happy.