As Mormons, we are constantly taught and reminded that obedience brings happiness. So what are we to conclude when we’re obedient but still aren’t happy?
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.
Are we? I don’t recall ever having heard that, but I may not have been listening. The biggest problem we get into is oversimplifying the links between our behavior and the way life works out, including our own emotions.
I think you’ve got the major points, covered, but let me add a slightly different perspective, just in case it helps anyone, because I struggled with something similar on my mission (and I think it’s one of the reasons we get a lot of early returners–guys who can’t figure out how to be happy).
I used to think that the idea of obedience bringing happiness was pretty straightforward–keep the commandments and you will be happy. Keep the mission rules, and you will be happy. Then I stated wondering why I was so miserable while all the rule breakers seemed happy.
It took a while for me to understand several separate points. First, pleasure and happiness are not the same–rule breakers derived momentary pleasure from their actions, but no happiness. That’s why they kept seeking pleasure in breaking rules. They weren’t really happy, but they were distracted from any unhappiness because they weren’t focused on it.
The second point is related to the first: the busy, hard working people are happy, but they don’t spend much time obsessing about whether or not they are happy or in pleasure seeking. They just exist and work. It’s the psychological concept of flow. You get into the situation and you just exist. The hard workers are focused on doing, and that makes them happy because they are doing what they want to do and what they should do. There are exceptions to this, but the ones I am thinking of are those who are simply focused on getting the job done, then moving on to the next task. They don’t complain, mentally or physically. When the work is done, they either move on to the next job OR they stop and enjoy whatever enjoyable company is available, but they don’t really worry about that.
The third thing I realized is that happiness is the commandment. Happiness is a decision, not a result. We don’t do something and then become happy. It doesn’t work that way. I had come to that conclusion a while ago, and now that I’ve studied the problem a bit, I’ve got data. The data on the topic from economists and psychologists both, clearly indicate that we as humans do not change our level of happiness as a result of external stimuli. Example–a survey was taken of a large number of individuals, asking three simple questions:
1. How happy are you now?
2. If you win the lottery and become financially independent as a result, how happy would be one year later?
3. If you are in a major accident and become permanently wheel-chair bound as a result, how happy would be one year after the accident?
They then surveyed people who had had these things happen, and found that lottery winners, contrary to expectation, are not significantly happier than non-lottery winners, and that those in a wheel-chair [due to an accident] are not significantly less happy than those not in a wheel chair. Due to the methodology, it could have been argued that because different people were surveyed in all three groups, comparisons should not be made, but other studies regarding predictive ability about happiness and satisfaction indicate that this pattern will likely hold if a more rigorous method is applied.
The take-home from this is simple: we cannot rely on external events for our happiness. It comes from within. It is a decision. We wake up each day and decide, “I will be happy today.” Or not. If we don’t make that decision, then we leave it to chance or habit. If our habit is to be happy, then fine, but if it is not our habit, then it will likely not be a happy day. If our habit is to be miserable, then once you make the decision, the trick is to make that happen. Cognitive-behavioral therapy requires changing both your thoughts and behavior. Change these and you become a happier person.
Frankly, that’s what repentance is all about–becoming happier. Change your thoughts. Don’t think about the misery. Think about the good. If you must deal with a problem, focus on the solution.
Anyway: disclaimer–I am not a therapist or licensed clinical psychologist. Anything above that sounds like clinical advice isn’t. It’s just musings from someone who knows just enough to sound like a clinical psychologist. I am not responsible if you make yourself happier. If you are depressed you should talk to a professional. If you are really miserable but don’t think you are depressed a professional can probably still help you. Some bishops are as helpful as professionals, others are not.
Happiness is a strange beast, because it can come from numerous sources, many of which don’t come directly from obeying God. Unhappiness can stem from numerous things besides the simplified “I broke a commandment, therefore I shall be unhappy.” Unhappiness can stem from the regular stresses of mundane life. It can stem from depression. It can stem from spectacular things occurring in your life (like a loved one lost, or a terrorist attack, or general warfare, etc). None of those things has a direct connection to one’s ability at being obedient to the commandments of God.
Members of the church ARE taught that obedience to God can as a rule of thumb lead to happiness. However, we are also taught that part of this life is meant to experience sorrows. Indeed experiencing sorrow is repeated again and again in the scriptures, as well as other places I will not mention here.
I personally have never met a member of the Church who is so niave as to expect every moment of their life to be pure joy. Anyone who has this expectation is not listening to the clear message being taught by the Church.
Keeping the commandments generally brings happiness, but some have chemical inbalances that require treatment, sometimes life throws curve balls that bring temporary, or even longterm sadness, and sometimes other factors such as longterm abuse make happiness a difficult prospect.
“Without misery we could not know happiness.” This is one of the most often repeated doctrines in the Church.
I think we, as members of the church, often try for uber-happiness by being super-spiritual. This leads to extremism, which never makes anybody happy. It usually backfires eventually, and does not create happiness. Andrew, your MTC experience seems to be an example of this. I used to think that it was a simple equation — obedience = happiness. And more spirituality equaled more happiness. But as I’ve gotten older and had more life experience, I’ve realized nothing is that simple. People are complex. Life is messy. Happiness comes in lots of ways. Certainly, having faith contributes to happiness, but it isn’t the whole picture.
One foundational quibble:
“As Mormons, we are constantly taught and reminded that obedience brings happiness”
Is there a scripture source for this teaching? I have usually interpreted someone in the Church saying this kind of thing to mean that when life is over, the happiness begins.
The related Book of Mormon scriptures usually stress the opposite, that “wickedness never was happiness” without saying necessarily that obedience brings happiness in the short term. This life as a vale of tears and all that.
Not that I don’t WANT obedience to bring happiness, I just don’t think of it in those terms. (I also confess the image of Jesus silently memorizing hymns in an MTC lunch-line will stick with me for a while, but that’s another issue [WWJD?] 🙂
Great post. I needed that.
Jungle Face Jake (1). Here are just a few examples of Mormons being taught that obedience brings happiness.
“One of life’s great lessons is to learn that happiness comes through obedience.” (Russell M. Nelson, “Sweet Power of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2003, 7.)
“Keeping the covenants is not hard when you do it willingly with a “broken heart and a contrite spirit.” When obeyed, those covenants bring happiness and joy.” (
Richard G. Scott, “Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer,” Ensign, May 1997, 53.)
“As we keep His commandments, we are blessed and come to know true happiness. . . . True happiness comes from keeping the commandments of God.” (Claudio R. M. Costa, “Fun and Happiness,” Ensign, Nov 2002, 92.)
“In this life, the obedient may enjoy peace of mind, happiness, and “joy in the Holy Ghost” There is no joy in sin.” (Robert D. Hales, “‘If Thou Wilt Enter into Life, Keep the Commandments’,” Ensign, May 1996, 35.)
“Obedience will yield happiness, while violation of His commandments will not.”
(Richard G. Scott, “How to Live Well amid Increasing Evil,” Ensign, May 2004, 100.)
“This life is an experience in profound trust—trust in Jesus Christ, trust in His teachings, trust in our capacity as led by the Holy Spirit to obey those teachings for happiness now and for a purposeful, supremely happy eternal existence.” (Richard G. Scott, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, Nov 1995, 16.)
“To be happy and successful we must obey the laws and regulations pertaining to our activities.” (N. Eldon Tanner, “Obeying the Right Voice,” Ensign, Nov 1977, 42.)
“There is great joy and happiness in striving to live righteously. . . . No other feeling in the soul of man can bring the joy and happiness than that of knowing you are doing all you can to become righteous.” (William R. Bradford, “Righteousness,” Ensign, Nov 1999, 85.)
“For happiness now and throughout your life, steadfastly obey the Lord, no matter what pressure you feel to do otherwise.” (Richard G. Scott, “Making the Right Decisions,” Ensign, May 1991, 34.)
John N. (6),
I think one of the main doctrinal contributions or clarifications in the Book of Moses is that we can experience joy in THIS LIFE, rather than having to wait for the next life:
“And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.” (Moses 5:10.)
I wholeheartedly agree. The sourpuss face (President Hinckley would have said they had been sucking on lemons!) some LDS have when they preach that obedience brings happiness makes me laugh!
John N. (6), here is an example of a scriptural source for the teaching that obedience brings happiness:
“And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God.” (Mosiah 2:41.)
Yet if you look at Hinkley’s life, he certainly demonstrated that obedience did bring him happiness. Or perhaps, less arguably, he was a happy person, and he was also an obedient person.
Honestly, though, the correlation in the church at large between those that are truly happy and those are truly obedient not just to the letter but the spirit of the commandments I suspect is very high. You can’t prove it though, because the markers are so hard to read correctly. There just aren’t enough external observations that I can use as markers for EITHER variable to establish the correlation. That is, I don’t have a proper measure of happiness (oh, psychologists have some, but I am not personally satisfied with them–there is, I suspect, a lot of error variance [look it up if you like]). I also do not have a proper measure of obedience to the letter of the spiritual law, and frankly, I have no desire to develop one. About the best indicator I can come up with is frequency of temple attendance, but that’s hardly a perfect one for a large number of reasons (which I won’t get into here).
Ultimately, however, what I said before remains true–if you want to be happy, you need to make that decision. It’s not an ‘easy’ decision like choosing what to eat, but it really is a decision, not a response to external events. There really isn’t any way to avoid this. It is also only marginally related to how you live your life. Of course doing things you believe or know to be wrong will make it impossible to be happy, but then beyond that you must choose to be happy. To love life, to live, to enjoy things, to see the positive. That’s just a choice you have to make. No one else can do it for you.
And the converse: “Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10) This is the one that creates the anxiety. One may be lead to think “If I try to be obedient and am not happy as I have expected to be based on the scriptures and words of the prophets, my obedience must be wickedness.” This may either yield further nit-picky, Pharisaical obedience strategies, or discouragement and despair.
Nice post, Andrew. I can’t help but wonder if that MTC experience was one of running faster than you had strength. We all did that in the MTC, didn’t we, though? Too bad there isn’t a way of evaluating where we are spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally, and setting realistic goals toward which we can work and actually see success. Much of the current motivational literature these days encourages readers to focus on only one acheivable goal at a time, and to work on it until it becomes habit. Then, choose another. Trying to do too much all at once doesn’t allow the new activity or habit to sink in to our psyche, to become part of our modus operandi.
The question is, can we convince ourselves that obedience can work on this model? If we know we are disobedient in, say, 6 major areas, can we get the Lord on board with our desires to be obedient in all 6, but not all at once? I think so.
In preaching from the pulpit obedience is a very common theme in the LDS experience. I think one can find various and healthful nuances but, based on my own life and observations, I think the most dominant cultural theme is that obedience causes happiness. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, but not the most enabling, hopeful nuance. Such often does lead the LDS members to have a very legalistic, and an almost folk-magical, approach to obedience, blessings and happiness. There is the very common understanding that blessings are predicated on obedience to the corresponding laws (D&C 103:20-21). Now rewards certainly correlate with certain commandments, but it is unhealthy where it becomes a kind of folk-magic, a way of binding God to performance (blessings) based upon our actions, and where it turns the onus upon our behavior more than our faith. I don’t think all LDS people feel this way, but this perspective is still quite common. Where it really can become stifling of hope is when numerous acts of behavior and omission become “sins” — like doing genealogy, food storage, journaling, temple work, accepting all calls blindly, women not working outside the home, etc., etc. Or even matters of church community “holiness” standards — WoW, dress standards, piercing, etc. — can get elevated to sins of commission and disobedience that separates one from God’s acceptance.
From my perspective of studying and converting to more traditional Protestant Christianity I see the emphasis that obedience and happiness are not causitively linked as much as they are correlatively linked. By submitting to God and accepting his Grace and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, God enables us to obey Him as well as experience His happiness. Therefore obedience and happiness both are a God-enabled fruit of faith in Him.
It seems much more straightforward, makes things more simple, answers more questions than it raises, when we consider life happiness a reward or byproduct of obedience. As children of the Enlightenment, happiness and obedience to laws make “more sense” when they become replicable experiments. Do this and get that. Works for everyone who follows the experiment the right way. Furthermore, as selfish, if well-intentioned, creatures we seek for rewards and privilege for our good deeds, and we can grow angry and separated form God when the blessings we’ve bound God to grant us by our obedience do not seem to follow.
But God’s ways are foolishness to the world (1 Cor 3). As we choose to view that each of us have different maturities of faith, different personalities, different weaknesses and challenges, different seasons of life, and different spiritual gifts, we find from the refining process of synergy with the Holy Spirit that good fruits will blossom differently for each believer. This is especially true for the many “sins of omission” with which many believers can burden themselves unduly. How freeing it can be to view that through our lives God’s glory, and our rewards, will radiate differently. Ultimately our fruit is only something we and God must review together, not used as a standard of external comparison with others.
Sin is unhappiness and separation, and all of us a creatures of sin, and our world as a byproduct of sin, will find unhappiness. But God has descended to save us all, and accepted the burden of all sin, even major “sins of commission,” if we will but believe. As we submit to God to be transformed, our experience, therefore, will be more freeform, less predictable, and individual than looking at obedience and happiness with a causative “spiritual exprimental” world-view. Why some believers still make major mistakes of sin after coming to faith is a challenge, and a reason why the easier path is to emphasize that acceptance of God and happiness will follow after our obedience and repentance. Unfortunate is where that becomes our legalistic burden, rather than motivating us to turn inward toward God to soften our heart, strengthen our faith, and give our burden to him so that we may willingly learn, be refined, bring forth fruit, be transformed to what He desires for us, and ultimately be His glory.
Just for Quix,
Almost thou persuadest me to be a Protestant. 😉
I guess I feel it a bit differently in that obedience for me brings peace, which is different from happy. I’m currently in a situation in life where my body is disinegrating out from under me. I’m almost completely bedridden and hurt from the top of my head to my feet. It gets very depressing at times. And a lot of times I wonder just why I’m still here. There’s not much I am able to do for anyone else as I can barely care for myself. But I do feel the love of my Heavenly Father.
I know that in the grand scheme of things and the timeline of eternity, this life is shorter than a sneeze. When I remember that, I know I can endure pretty much anything. And I know that it will pass eventually and maybe enduring this much agony in this life is indeed preparing me for joy beyond my wildest imaginings in the next. We must taste the bitter to know the sweet.
I also think part of our probationary test is how WELL we respond to the bitter we are dealt. And what kind of decisions do we make when we experience bitter. Do we walk away from God just because something bad happens? Or do we turn to Him for comfort and guidence and accept humbly the bitter, knowing it will produce fruit if we allow it to. And do we look inward as you suggested, and humbly acknowledge that even in our obedience, we are unprofitable servants? There is much to learn from hardship and pain. I would say far more than from ‘happiness’ here in mortality. I hope I am making sense.
Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robed. The fact is that most puts 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 often dull then otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey. Delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust cinders and jolt interspersed only by beautiful vistas and thrill burst of speed. The trick is to thank the lord for letting you have the ride. Gordon B Hinckley
My brother John sent me this and said it was quote from Pres Hinckley. Who ever said it I dido it.
Great message Andrew we just used your entry tonight for our FHE here in the UK.
Three out of the four of us agreed with you – my son disagrees with everything.
Andrew ( #8 )
LOL, like I said I wasn’t listening. (I’ll admit to being just shy of a jack mormon and rarely listening to general conference — and I was a missionary that was fairly selective about keeping the rules and had a good enough time.)
I agree with your conclusion generally, but it seems to me that we should take happiness from wherever it comes from and not be too quick to blame ourselves (or God or his plan) if we find we are unhappy.
Hi – I am catholic poking his nose into the conversation. I am not here to promote Catholicism – I am here to encourage you all to grow in your faith and obedience to God. So if this comment help please to it to heart – if it hurts, please disregard.
From my own experience with a dynamic, personal relationship with God, I have learned that God gives wonderful feelings of happiness and fulfillment often, yet He also gives us times of trial. The desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Church speak of this; they tell us that part of the sanctification process (the process of God molding us into citizens of Heaven) is to let us deal with His absence – to allow us to need and cry out to Him who provides.
It is perfectly normal to feel burdened and abandoned by God – instead of interpreting that feeling as doubt, it is important to recognize that God is allowing us to stand on our own and walk with Him. If I wrote the popular Footprints poem I would emphasis walking in his steps, rather than Him carrying me. The fact is, we are all in a justifying, sanctifying, glorious relationship with the Father and we simply need to trust His process.
I like the emphasis of this scripture:
“But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.” Mormon 2:13
This scripture acknowledges that people can take “happiness” in sin. It may go on for a long time, but it is happiness on a sandy foundation that can collapse. Happiness in the roots of the gospel will whether more storms.
Andrew, I had remarkably similar experiences with the “obedience = happiness” paradigm during both my mission and my thirtysomething-married-kids-career part of my life. It was really my profound unhappiness (and the prospect of living my remaining years in such a rut) more so than any profound doctrinal and/or historical church issues, that lead to my intense re-evaluation of my basic life assumptions, or everything I “believed,” over the previous 3-4 years.
After stripping literally everything away, the only concrete thing I felt I could fully embrace, both body and spirit, was the same conclusion that you came to, that “Happiness is the purpose of our existence. Love is the source of happiness. Obedience means loving God and loving our neighbor.”
“Obedience” is such a loaded term for me in the sense that it is burdened by layers and layers of LDS doctrine and practice/culture, but it still works for me if it is translated as being true to what you believe God wants for you, your family, and your fellow man.
How one determines one’s beliefs and/or what ideal/belief/principle to be obedient to is some combination of personal experience, or “personal revelation” if you will, and learning from others past and present.
Where it becomes tricky for Mormons (or any member of a close-knit tribe) is when personal experience contradicts the beliefs/standards of the group. Though difficult, it is these instances that are the essence of life and most determine a man’s character. I’m a firm believer in the if-the-seed-is-good-it-bringeth-forth-good-fruit idea, which usually requires some trial and error (and not just in terms of practice, but ideas as well… i.e. trying ideas on for size). This quote is important to me if one’s personal “seed” is different from the group’s “seed” (even if the fruit is the same):
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” (author unknown)
In any case, the ideas you explore in this post is, to me, the baseline ideas for the whole shooting match. In other words, every other idea explored around the bloggernacle is subordinate to this.
Does the fact that I do not possess the Mechelzidek or even the priesthood of Aaron, exclude me from general conversation?
RL – ? Not sure what you’re saying here, “brutha” 🙂 Am I missing something?
Aye, women and children are welcome here, as are Catholics, as long as they’re nice, lol. No priesthood required.
#14 & #15 – Nah, it’s his Mormon background enlightening his current Protestant view. 🙂
RL (#22) – Huh? No.
Adam and Ray – just a question – not an accusation.
James (17), I’m glad you found this message of some benefit. And I guess 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. I’ve never seen all 4 dentists agreeing in a toothpaste commercial.
RL (19), you’re absolutely welcome, regardless of whether you’re a Mormon or not. For what it’s worth, I consider your Catholic brother, Thomas Merton, to be one of my spiritual mentors. The world suffered a tragic loss when he left us. Thankfully he left so many insightful and inspiring words behind for us to remember him by.
Matt (21), that’s interesting to me that you had a similar experience and came to similar conclusions. We’ll have to discuss at your parents’ on the 16th; I’ll be there.
RL – it wasn’t taken that way. 🙂 I think Ray and I were just surprised by it is all. Of course, you are welcome, on any post!
This idea is so funny to me. I can honestly say that like Benjamin O. I was asleep when this was taught (even if it was taught culturally). I don’t think it ever occurred to me that anyone thought obedience caused happiness. Are people nuts? The topics of those talks you mentioned were (in my mind) about how sin or disobedience causes unhappiness and obedience causes peace which frees us to be happier.
Like Benjamin O. I agree that you have to choose to be happy which is what my parents always taught me. I assumed the happiness/obedience link was like “whistling while you work” or finding pleasure in simple tasks. Happiness is the starting point, not the result.
Andrew, I appreciate your post today- it would have been helpful to read on my mission several years ago when I was also captive to the idea that over-zealous obedience would surely bring me happiness. Reading your post and the discussion here, including the comments from RL, I couldn’t help thinking of Mother Theresa and the somewhat recent revelation that despite her joyful demeanor and colossal human service she was actually plagued with self-doubt and unhappiness. (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415,00.html).
I know it would be pure conjecture to presume why she struggled with doubt and unhappiness despite a lifetime of loving acts, but I’m curious as to how we could find a place for her in your description of exactly how happiness can be achieved. Could she have been a unusually motivated and tenacious version of our perfectionist, missionary selves?
Sorry- should be spelled Mother Teresa
Stephen (30), great observation. I think Mother Theresa would fall into that category of people I described at the beginning who are understandably unhappy due to tragic circumstances that one would expect to depress even the most obedient souls. Mother Theresa was one of those rare individuals who willingly chose to “carry the cross,” not just for a few weeks or months, but for decades. She confronted the face of human misery and suffering on a daily basis, and I imagine that would deeply sadden even the noblest and most obedient of souls.
Andrew, another excellent post and thoughtful topic. I do agree with some of the posts that there is no direct cauality between obedience and happiness. But, obedience brings blessings which, if understood in the right way, can lead to happiness as one realizes they are following the Lord and being blessed for it.
We are also shotting for long term happiness, or happiness over the long run. Not instant or quick happiness. The world promotes the quick fix, but as we know wickness never was happiness.
Ray (24): Could be true. Definitely is place within this subject for a unity of faith. Cheers 🙂
Any thoughts on how to help those who believe that rejecting God/church/faith because of their unhappiness is not a recipe for happiness? Do you think they should be left to discover it on their own; while keeping the door of love and friendship open? What have your experiences taught you?
I wonder how we define happiness? Excitement? Contentment? Peace? Euphoria? Absence of sorrow? Hope? Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it matters to me.
During a long eleven years experiencing clinical depression, the majority of the time (in my case), I felt happy on many planes, though I felt immense sorrow and frustration on others. My happiness came mostly through my children, my wife, occasional accomplishments and the simple joys of life. A type of peace came through the atonement and I clung to hope for healing. Eventually, a type of healing came and my life is much calmer now. I have more personal victories and opportunities to celebrate.
But through it all, my testimony of the Sunday School answers to life’s problems has been strengthened, though with a significant qualification. Honest and earnest scripture study and prayer in many cases will not immediately bring happiness. But when done from the heart, they will prime the individual spirit to receive more specific guidance over time through the Holy Ghost to find answers to our dilemmas. In my case, that meant enduring painful trails, changing behaviors, medication, therapy and learning how to cope with a learning disorder that isn’t going away.
But the point is I felt a great deal of what I term happiness even while experiencing extraordinarily difficult personal turmoil. So I think we need to define the term before we can know if we’ve attained the state.
Fwiw, I believe in obedience as a basic principle of Jesus, since there are WAY too many iterations of “If ye love me, keep my commandments” to ignore, but I don’t think happiness is contingent on obedience to each, individual commandment. Obedience won’t cure chemical imbalances that cause depression, for example. Obedience won’t cure someone who is bi-polar. It won’t bring acceptance of the death of a spouse or child. I do believe we are rewarded for obedience, and I do believe that there is a “law irrevocably decreed . . .” – but I see happiness as the result of one particular commandment, the penultimate one that Jesus added to the previous two great commands (perhaps as a subset of the first).
Matthew 5:48 says: “Be therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” This is not an empty or symbolic command; it is a real expectation – at least the attempt. I have blogged extensively this year on my own site about this **process**, but let me say here that “perfection” as defined in the Law of Moses is “unwavering obedience”. Perfection as defined by Jesus is the acquisition of the attributes and characteristics of Godhood – becoming complete, whole, fully developed as God is. There is an important and profound difference between those two standards, and we live in a world that defines perfection generally as the Law of Moses does. We need to recognize the difference, fight the natural man tendency and focus on **becoming perfect** (complete and whole and fully developed – not mistake-free).
Recognizing our potential, realizing God’s grace/mercy really does allow us to become what we don’t deserve to become, understanding that – in the moment of the here and now – our best is good enough, personal introspection that leads to personal understanding that leads to personalized repentance (focus on “change” that makes one become more like God) – this process brings happiness, imho. I know I have never been happier than this year, as I have focused very narrowly on this command.
If anyone is interested in the meat of what I am writing, check out my blog for the posts categorized under “Grace”, “Perfection”, “Repentance” and “Resolutions”. The above is as good a summary as I can provide here.
Just so it is clear, I wrote my last comment without having read Ryan’s comment. Mine was NOT a response to his/hers.
Something else to think about in terms of our programming and why we think the way we do. It’s not just a mormon cultural thing, it can be a very basic childhood development thing. Unless there are cognitive or mental disabilities, children VERY early on learn that there are good things and bad things. Generally, they really want to be a good thing. What the child believes about his parents’ assessment of his goodness pretty much forms his own opinion of himself. In many situations, that’s going to be all tied up with the child’s level of obedience. In the elementary thought processes of young children, it can be as simple for them as “I’m only as good as my most recent behaviour. I DID a good thing, so I AM a good thing – I DID a bad thing, so I AM a bad thing.” Happiness or sorrow follow.
I have this really bright, energetic and pretty charming 7 year old. He honestly thinks circles around his older brothers and keeps us all laughing. In terms of “happiness”, he’s an extremely happy kid. But on the occassions where he knows that one of his parents is displeased with his behaviour, he disolves into despair. He’s a great example of what I’m talking about. I’m trying to work with him to help him understand that his parents’ love for him is not conditional on his behaviour, it is constant. Our expressions of displeasure are in fact acts of love designed to help him grow. I believe that as he matures (cognitively, socially, spiritually) he will be able to separate how he thinks of himself from how others might be currently pleased or displeased with him. Hopefully he will be able to recognize the love of a being that loves him much more perfectly, unconditionally and constantly than his parents. That’s where his happiness will come from. I hope that he will learn that he is a “good thing” because he’s loved by “the BEST thing”. What I’m learning now, and that I hope all my children learn is that when you start to pass that love on, the real happiness flows.
I often get uncomfortable when Latter-day Saints (including general authorities) talk about happiness. Yes, I believe in the “plan of happiness,” but I worry that we too often think of happiness in a very narrow, Western conception. One of the worst things that we can do, as worshipers of God, in my opinion, is to develop an instrumental view of God — the reason I worship is God is for me to be happy. If this is the case, then it appears that I have violated the greatest commandment. I have put another God — my happiness — before Him.
The thing that is so radical, compared to the modern utilitarian hedonist individualistic world in which we live, about Christian worship (including Mormon Christian worship) is that we worship God regardless of what we get out of it. Our relationship with God is an end in itself, not a means to my own “happiness” or “fulfillment” or “enjoyment” or “comfort.” The same can be said about a marriage. It’s about relationship, not individual benefits.
So, my advice for Latter-day Saints is to stop worrying about their happiness and start worrying about being one with God and neighbor. Indeed, we can say that this union IS happiness, but this is very different than modernist conceptions of happiness that have creeped into the Church. Moreover, we could never, as Viktor Frankl would claim, pursue such happiness directly. The great irony is that those who are the most concerned about their own “happiness” are the ones who are least likely to have obtained it…
Although obedience leads to happiness, obedience (as you said) without charity is meaningless. I have found as I struggle to obey prayerfully, always seeking to know how the Spirit prompts me to obey, my love for the Savior comes with the Spirit. The more I love, the more obvious it is that true obedience is a natural outgrowth of charity.
You get to the point where you long to obey Him.
jjackson (39), that’s for those observations. I think you’re right on, but I’d never thought of it that way. I have an eight year old who fits that description, and I think you’ve helped me understand her better.
Dennis (40), You say our relationship with God should not be sought as a means of finding benefits like “fulfillment” or “enjoyment” or “comfort,” but rather, that we should just do it for the “relationship.” But in saying that it seems you’ve just substituted a new benefit, i.e., “relationship,” in place of the other benefits you say we should not seek. Also, I have a hard time understanding why God would use promises of fulfillment, enjoyment, comfort, etc. in the scriptures to entice us to enter a relationship with Him, if as you suggest, we are not to be drawn to God as a potential source of happiness. For example, what are we to make of Christ’s promises of fulfillment if we aren’t supposed to be seeking our fulfillment? “He who drinks of the living water I shall give him shall never thirst again.”
I think the idea you espouse appeals to our sense of a duty of self-sacrifice or selflessness, but I’m not sure that (a) God actually requires or expects us to be devoid of any self-interest; and (b) that it’s necessary to be entirely devoid of self-interest in order to develop true charity. I find nothing wrong with the idea of seeking happiness through loving God and others. In fact, it seems to me that was exactly what Jesus was teaching us to do in the scriptures I quoted above from John 15.
I’ve hesitated a few days to respond to this thread with my own immediate reaction, lest I attract far more flame than light, but here I go anyway. To me, Joseph Smith never taught a more correct principle than “Happiness is the object and design of our existence,” or as it appears in The Book of Mormon, “Men are that they might have joy.” Andrew has asked an important question, and some good responses have resulted. His question has a correlary, though. What about when obedience doesn’t just fail to bring happiness, but actually creates unhappiness?
Now, please don’t leap to the “easy” answer of “we can be miserable right now, but it’s okay because it will make us be happy in some future state of existence that we hope exists.” We all understand that as a major underpinning of most world religions, including LDS-ism. At what point do we reexamine the proposition we’ve tried to obey, if that very act of obedience brings us pain and misery?
Example: LDS believe in fasting as a way to focus one’s attention on holy things (among other benefits). There are some individuals, however, who’s health is such that fasting is a threat to their well-being, and LDS teachings make room for such people “honorably” not to fast. I’ve known a few individuals who were actually instructed not to fast by competent professionals, and even by local LDS leaders, yet they chose to risk their health in order to be obedient to the LDS principle of fasting.
We can find similar dillemas when it comes to women and pregnancy, where some women will face serious risk to their own lives, in order to obey what they see as divine prohibitions against abortions. When they live, it gets touted as divine protection for their obedience. When they die, they’re basically counted as martyrs who would rather die than be disobedient.
I’ve cited dangers to health and safety, just to focus the dillema, but there are many other instances where obedience to perceived divine command have brought misery. When it’s someone else’s religion, we tend to conclude that those people were wrong about what deity expected. When it’s our own faith, however, we tend to struggle more with the dissonance.
I know in my own life, I’ve had to reexamine things that I thought deity required, before the results of my “obedience” led me to stuffing the business end of a handgun in my mouth. Really.
“When they live, it gets touted as divine protection for their obedience. When they die, they’re basically counted as martyrs who would rather die than be disobedient.”
This seems to be a common theme, and relates to Hawkgrrrl’s post as well. Perhaps it could be called the “Fundamental Attribution Error of Religion”
#43 – Well said, Nick. You are getting at what I was saying in my last comment – that happiness is a result of an attitude shift and of a process of character development, not a result of following a checklist of do and don’t.
A more common example would be the tendency of Mormons to view EVERY meeting as a REQUIRED meeting – to such an extent that we joke about the 14th Article of Faith: “We believe in meetings.” The Church has focused a lot recently on trying to get local leaders to streamline and reduce meetings, but some people still attend too many meetings and end up neglecting family in the process.
My philosophy is simple – and blatantly plagiarized: “It takes an excellent meeting to be better than no meeting.” “There is no meeting so unimportant that it can’t start on time; there is no meeting so important that it can’t end on time.”
I take happiness and joy in these cases to mean something like the ‘expansiveness’ of soul and the ‘enlargement’ of soul we see in the scriptures in a couple places. Largeness of soul, which would contain a large happiness, seems to me a better end than simply having happy feelings all the time. I think that if we think we are being obedient, but we are not expereincing a broadening of our capacities, especially our capacity to experience life, then we aren’t being obedient to all the right things. We might be straining after a carnal law.
The happiest years of my life, as measured by ease and easy emotions, were the year I left the church and the two years that we had thousands and thousands of dollars worth of stock options. Those years were nice and, for me, neccesary. My life since returning to the church has been in many ways more difficult than those years. But there is a deepening in me that I always sense and that breaks through in moments of enlightenment and joy that puts to in a bigger context those years which seem to me now merely pleasurable.
I love the saying of Kahil Gibran concerning pain and happiness, that our current suffering hollows our places in our soul that can later contain great joy. I think that is right, if we understand and are obedient to the gospel.
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
Thomas Parkin – great quote. Thanks for adding that thought.
I have to agree with Nick that obedience to a letter of the law that clearly doesn’t apply in the individual circumstance is not only silly but probably detrimental. It seems to be pride to me and nothing more.
On jjackson’s thoughts – I wonder how often this is the source of Mormon self-loathing. Must we have constant feelings of approval from God 24×7 to feel like we are decent human beings? Expecting obedience to lead to constant feelings of God’s approval and attention doesn’t seem like a concept that leads to spiritual growth; it stunts our growth by letting us instead become bottomless pits of neediness.
Nick (43), I’m glad you posed that question and I certainly don’t think it generates more heat than light.
Something I didn’t mention in the post was that I’m trying to figure out how having a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” fits into all of this. On the one hand, it seems we are offered happiness, but on the other hand, we’re urged to develop broken hearts, which doesn’t sound too . . . happy. Often obeying or doing the right thing can result in heart break. And it can be very difficult to determine whether the heartbreak we’re experiencing is a necessary aspect of developing a broken heart and contrite spirit, which can later lead to happiness, or is instead just gratuitous pain and suffering that isn’t willed by God.
Or why the obedient actually are happier 😉
hwkgrrrl (47) I think a lot of “us” havent ever broken out of that juvenile position in terms of our relationship with God. Just think of what a marriage would be like if that was how the partners operated.
I have some of my best fun watching my kids screw up with good intentions. I hope God enjoys the same thing to some extent. I want to please Him because I love Him, but I’ve basically stopped keeping score. I try to do the right thing and try to be faithful about regularly renewing my covenants. And I really have to rely on that faith. Self-flagellation be danged!
“You say our relationship with God should not be sought as a means of finding benefits like “fulfillment” or “enjoyment” or “comfort,” but rather, that we should just do it for the “relationship.” But in saying that it seems you’ve just substituted a new benefit, i.e., “relationship,” in place of the other benefits you say we should not seek.”
Andrew, you COULD see it this way, but you wouldn’t have to. If you insist on seeing “relationship” as a utilitarian benefit, then you would be right. But — who says that when I say “relationship” I am speaking of benefit at all? That interpretation is more revealing of one’s worldview than anything I said. I would simply say that we act “in relationship” with God, and that such acting is both the means and the end. No need to appeal to an individualistic benefit here.
“Also, I have a hard time understanding why God would use promises of fulfillment, enjoyment, comfort, etc. in the scriptures to entice us to enter a relationship with Him, if as you suggest, we are not to be drawn to God as a potential source of happiness. For example, what are we to make of Christ’s promises of fulfillment if we aren’t supposed to be seeking our fulfillment? “He who drinks of the living water I shall give him shall never thirst again.” ”
First of all, the way that God does this is never in a way that says “do x and you will be happy.” Also, I’m curious of where the promises of “fulfillment” and “comfort” are. I’m not sure that quenching thirst should be seen in terms of “fulfillment” or even happiness. Regardless, a major theme of the scriptures is God’s condescension to us. He might use all sorts of ways to try to persuade us to follow Him. One way God has done this (usually to those in the most spiritual trouble) is through fear. But does this mean we would say that it is preferable for us to follow God out of fear? Certainly not. A talk from Elder Oaks comes to mind here: it is good to follow God out of fear, better out of duty, best out of love. Interesting he doesn’t mention one’s own happiness.
But, yes, God and his prophets certainly have motivated us (however implicitly) by appeals to “happiness.” Regardless, as Elder Oaks has said, it is best to be motivated by love, or charity. And charity “seeks not her own.” So, in regards to your claim that you see “nothing wrong with the idea of seeking happiness through loving God and others.” Maybe you’re right. But it’s not charity. For charity would not be seeking anything in return for its love. Perhaps that’s why those on the right hand of the Savior, in the parable of the sheep and goats, are surprised at the Lord’s commendation of their acts. In my opinion, they never saw what they were doing as a means towards some reward in heaven or even their own happiness. They simply did what was right (i.e., acted charitably) “with no thought of reward.”
I do think that those who are one with God can be described as “happy.” However, we need to be wary lest our view of happiness is the same as the happy state of those who are one with God. Such a state would include tremendous sorrow — for this is the type of life that God lives, sorrowing for His children (as shown in the Book of Moses).
My recommendation for the obedient but not “happy.” Forget yourself and go to work. But not to be happy. Simply to serve your God and those who are in need. Or, in the words of Longfellow: “Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, / Is our destined end or way; / But to act, that each to-morrow / Find us further than to-day.”
Ugh, important typo in my comment above.
“…we need to be wary lest our view of happiness is NOT the same as the happy state of those who are one with God.”
One more thought on the problem of seeking our own happiness by loving God and others.
From my experience, the people who have best helped me (and loved me) are those who I could tell were not at all concerned with their own happiness. If they were, then how could they be certain that they were truly helping me, and not simply doing what was necessary to secure their own happiness? Indeed, from my experience those who are motivated to serve others in order to feel better themselves (i.e., be happy) often give the worst service.
Often in Sunday School, the question comes up, “What are the benefits of service?” I like to answer that, from my experience, the most important benefit is almost always the benefit for the person being served. Honestly, what more do we need to say? Why do we help others? Because they need our help. That’s all. Nothing more.
Dennis, thanks for your thoughts. It seems one could summarize our point of disagreement with the following question: Must a person be completely devoid of any self-interest in order to have true charity and attain true happiness? Please let me know if you do not think that is an accurate statement of the issue upon which you and I seem to disagree.
Assuming that’s correct, I think I’m going to do a future blog post on that topic, because I don’t think God expects or requires us to entirely abandon our sense of self-interest, however appealing that idea might seem on an abstract, altruistic level. We are awed and humbled by Christ’s sense of self-sacrifice, which is good. But I really think we go too far in morphing that into the idea that we must all completely abandon our self-interest.
Many people I know who’ve taken such an approach to life end up sacrificing themselves for everyone else all the time, never taking time to think or take care of themselves, until they finally snap and go off the deep end. That’s what worries me about the ideal you seem to be espousing.
Andrew – I think you are attributing things to Dennis that he didn’t intend to say. How very Ayn Rand of you. I’m surprised actually, although intrigued by your argument which I agree would be a great basis for a post.
The reason I think you’re both wrong is that IMO happiness is not the outcome of anything. It’s a state of mind. You can be happy regardless of whether you are cleaning out the toilet or lying on the beach. You can be happily serving others or unhappily. Happiness is our choice, not our reward. Happiness is a gift we give ourselves. (Obvious exception would be mental infirmity or chemical imbalance that would prevent one from choosing to be happy).
Hawkgrrrl, I’ll let Dennis correct me, but these are the portions of his comment that I was referring to:
“So, in regards to your claim that you see “nothing wrong with the idea of seeking happiness through loving God and others.” Maybe you’re right. But it’s not charity. For charity would not be seeking anything in return for its love.”
“My recommendation for the obedient but not “happy.” Forget yourself and go to work. But not to be happy.”
I’ve got the title for the upcoming post: “The Pursuit of Happiness: Right or Wrong?”
Dennis, could you do me a favor? If you think I’ve misunderstood your position, please just restate it for me concisely in 2 or 3 sentences.
I’ve given you my view, which is summarized in my personal mantra above: Happiness is the purpose of our existence. Love is the source of happiness. Obedience means loving God and loving our neighbor.
Perhaps I would add to that the point that it’s OK to seek your own happiness through loving others and God.
If I understand your point correctly, you seem to be saying it’s somehow wrong or at least not optimal to seek one’s own happiness. I disagree. I think there’s nothing wrong with seeking our own happiness; in fact I think it’s a good thing to do. I think what matters is HOW we try to find happiness, or in what SOURCES we seek happiness. If it’s drugs and porn or gambling or whatever, that’s the wrong way to look for happiness. If it’s loving God and loving our neighbor, that’s the right way to look for happiness.
Again, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so I’d appreciate a 2 or 3 sentence summary. And I think this issue is important and is not just semantic hairsplitting because I believe I’ve seen several examples of people who have had the attitude that they shouldn’t be seeking their own happiness, and that they should just work work work for others, and they end up becoming miserable and going off the deep end. So I do think this question is important and has some real life consequences.
Hawkgrrrl, okay, I know I’ve just tilted the obnoxious-o-meter by posting three consecutive comments on my own post, but I wanted to respond to your statement: “The reason I think you’re both wrong is that IMO happiness is not the outcome of anything. It’s a state of mind.”
I agree with you that happiness is a state of mind. And I agree with your argument that happiness is a choice.
To me, that “state of mind” is having a loving mind toward God and neighbor, which of course is a choice. I don’t think you can have happiness without love, because I think love is ultimately the source of happiness. And so obtaining happiness means choosing to love. Or in other words, happiness is love, and love is happiness.
Andrew – it’s been fun to be almost at odds with you since I can’t remember disagreeing with you before. But there you go being sensible again. Trying to be happy as a result of good behavior is like trying to hold a sunbeam rather than be filled with light.
They say there are only two basic emotions, fear and love, and all other emotions are varying degrees and combinations of those two. “Perfect love casteth out fear.” So perhaps the converse is true also, that fear chases out love (“For God hath not given us the Spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind”). So this is why the first great commandment is to love God and the second is like unto it, to love they neighbor as thyself. I can’t believe that we are capable of loving anyone if we don’t first love ourselves because if we don’t love ourselves, fear of not being loved creeps in. Or fear of not getting our reward. Or fear of being unworthy (weighed in the balances and found wanting).
Maybe the real objective is a lifelong quest to cast out all forms of fear and to become full of perfect love for God and our fellow man.
I don’t think you’re pegging our disagreement quite right — and I think that much of that is my fault. This is a very difficult topic to discuss, especially because I think the terms are problematic to begin with.
Actually, I’ve thought of many great things on this topic (while I was showering today, incidentally) which were prompted by our discussion, so thank you. It may be that we agree more than you think — but I think the terms are problematic.
For now, let me say this. Depending on what you mean by “happiness,” I could agree that happiness is the purpose of our existence. For me, the issue is what you mean by happiness. However, I think this word often deceives so I prefer not to use it much in this regard. Also, I would stress the word “our” in this sentence. Happiness would be a relational description, not an individual possession. (And I definitely disagree that happiness is a state of mind, as well as the fact that we can make ourselves happy. Whatever you’re talking about here, hawkgrrrl, it’s not the same thing I’m talking about.)
Regarding self-interest. I really dislike this word. Both parts of it: self and interest. But that’s an entire discourse. I will say simply this. If by “self” you mean “me in relation to others,” then yes, I would say that self-interest is important. But if by “self” you mean “me as an individual atomistic entity” then I would say self-interest is an illusion and is destructive. Regarding those who you know who are completely self-sacrificing but then burn themselves out and so on — I would argue, first, that I never argued for “self-sacrifice.” Second, I would say that the problem of these individuals is not that they are concerned with others. It is that they are concerned with others in a false and slightly deceptive way (as we all, as imperfect mortals, are daily).
So here’s how I would position things. The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love my neighbor as my self. Clearly, these commandments require love for three entities: God, neighbor, and self. However, the emphasis is clearly on God and neighbor. And in fact, we can ground an entire ethics in “the Other,” whether it is God or our neighbor (e.g., the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas). I would be concerned with my self, but my self-concern is completely woven up in concern for the other. Never as an end in itself. For the moment I do that I isolate myself from the other and have a deceptive view of my “self.” Where I am in reality a self in relation, I deceptively see myself as an isolated self the moment I seek for my own “self-interest” as an end in itself. We all do this all the time (well, I do, anyway). The philosopher Jean-Luc Marion talked about this. The moment I focus on my own suffering (alone), I stop seeing other people in their experiences, including their triumphs and their sorrows.
So, to make this more clear — why would I eat and drink? For my wife (among others). I am her husband and I need to be there for her. I exist for her and I give her my love — but I don’t do so for the love to be returned. I don’t do so to receive anything. Thus, in a sense, I am self-interested — I am interested in being the right self in relation to my wife. But I am not interested in me (atomistic individual me) receiving something out of our relationship. It is true that there is a distinct “me” but this “me” can only be understood in light of the “we.” Moreover, I recognize that I am an other for my wife! — if I love my wife, then I want her to love others, including myself. Thus, if I don’t care about myself, then I don’t care about my wife. But this would not require me to FIRST love myself (or seek for my self as an end in itself) but rather can be completely described as first loving her. Thus, here is another reason why I must be concerned with my self. But again, not as an end in itself, but for the sake of relationship.
We can extend this to our relationship with God. Why do I want to return to live with God? For Him. I am his son and I need to be there for Him. I exist for Him and I give Him my love — but I don’t do so for the love to be returned. For there is nothing I can do to earn his love — for herein is true Love, not that we love God, but that God first loved us and sent His Only Begotten Son in our behalf. Once again, in a sense, I am self-interested — I am interested in being the right self in relation to God. But I am not interested in me (atomistic individual me) receiving something out of our relationship (such as “happiness”). It is true that there is a distinct “me” but this “me” can only be understood in light of the “we.” Moreover, I recognize that I am an other of my Father– I know that He loves me and that He desires to be with me for all eternity. Thus, here is another reason why I must be concerned with my self. But again, not as an end in itself, but for the sake of relationship. Happiness, then, is being in relationship with God, not something I (atomist individual me) receive from Him. This “happiness” would include great sorrow and pain, both here and in eternity. For this is the life that God lives. As the grand Being in relation, God is not concerned with his own self as an end in itself, but rather as a self in relation to His children. Because his children make bad choices and sin and some are eternally cast from His presence, He of course has much pain and sorrow in His life. As do we, as we are truly concerned and engaged in the needs of our neighbors. For this reason, some of the best among us have good reason to be profoundly sad. But this sadness would also include the peace that passes all understanding, as well as the great joy that comes in the deepest relationships with others and with God (see Mosiah 25:8-11).
Dennis – you lost “atomistic individual me” around paragraph six. To paraphrase Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” this train of thought seems to have left the plane of existence I inhabit. I’m gonna get some air.
“They say there are only two basic emotions, fear and love, and all other emotions are varying degrees and combinations of those two.”
Sometimes you have me doubting your commitmnet to Sparkle Motion!
(Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
Well, as I’ve said, the things I’ve been thinking about are difficult to talk about.
Maybe you can help me to understand a little better how or where or why you are lost…
One thing that I’m challenging is your claim (very common in Western culture) that a person must love themselves before loving others. I am arguing that to love others, including God, is to SIMULTANEOUSLY love yourself, but to love yourself AS AN OTHER. It would be impossible to FIRST love one’s self because no “self” exists in a vacuum apart from others. Rather a “self” is simultaneously a brother, a sister, a mother, a child of God, etc. So the only way to love myself is to love my self-as-brother, -as-sister, -as-child-of-God, etc. These relations do not exist within me, nor is my self a self-contained entity (atomism). I am, most fundamentally, a being in relation. If I have to love myself first, then there would have to be a time in which I love just-me, but there is no such thing as just-me. So the only way I could REALLY love myself is for me to simultaneously love others. Anything else would be an illusion.
Is this (kind of) clear?
Dennis – I’m not even sure I disagree. This just reminds me of philosophy class too much or the kind of heady discussion one has smoking a joint (that one thinks is really heady at the time anyway). I can go so far as to agree that part of the concept of self is relative in the way Jacques Derrida argued all of language is relative and therefore essentially meaningless; even Tom Hanks’ existence in Castaway became relative to Wilson the Volleyball, right? But at the end of the day, this argument distances one needlessly from real life experience. I’m not really prescribing what one should do so much as trying to describe what I think one really does to be happy.
I do, however, believe that we exist individually without mere relation to each other (unlike language which is entirely interdependent):
– “if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.”
– “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”
So, my own interpretation of those (which could be totally wrong, I admit) is that our selves as individual entities are co-eternal with God, but he’s just a lot smarter than we are. As for self-love as foundational, I accept that it’s necessary to simultaneously love ourselves, but the relativism you describe leaves me a little cold in light of my view of our eternal individualistic nature.
Thomas Parkin – good clip! pretty funny. Not sure I agree with the “them” who say it’s all fear or love, but the scriptures came to mind to support that idea. However, I have always heard there were more like 7 basic emotions based on the path the energy takes through your body. But what do I know?
Perhaps you can help me understand where you see relativism in my argument…?
“But what do I know?”
The clip: as soon as someone says “fear and love” now, I think of Donnie Darko.
Dennis – “I am, most fundamentally, a being in relation.” That’s relativism. You are defining the self in purely relative terms, not just primarily but apparently solely: “but there is no such thing as just-me.”
You further state (in the aforementioned paragraph 6) that you eat and drink because of your relationship with your wife, to preserve the relationship. I am not buying it. You eat and drink because your body requires food. Or wait, if you’re an American, you probably just eat out of habit like the rest of us. Or because the odor of the food was pleasant and reminded you that you enjoyed eating that type of food. You eat and drink for the same reason the animals do (which may or may not be self-interest, for all I know you have an eating disorder and eat because of self-loathing), not for love of your wife. That doesn’t mean you don’t love her, but that is at its most basic what self-interest is–you can’t help it; self-interest comes naturally, and to some extent you have no choice. Self-preservation runs deeper than human love, and thank goodness for that! Unless you want to prove me wrong and go on a hunger strike. If you forego eating out of love for your wife, I might believe it.
“I am, most fundamentally, a being in relation.” That’s relativism. You are defining the self in purely relative terms, not just primarily but apparently solely: “but there is no such thing as just-me.”
Here, you have simply asserted that I am being a relativist, telling me THAT I have defined the self in purely relative terms without saying HOW I have done this. I disagree that I have done this. To be in relation is not relative, in the sense that anything can go as far as what I am relation to. I cannot be a being in relation to something that is not. If I were a relativist, then I would say that you define yourself and I define myself and my definition is no better than your definition and yours no better than mine.
Regarding your claim that “self-preservation runs deeper than human love,” we will have to simply agree to disagree on this one. If I am most fundamentally a self-interested being, in the way that you describe it, then how, when, and why does love emerge? Can I have a choice to love? Can I do otherwise from loving one who I do love? Can I do otherwise from hating one who I do hate? If so, how does this work with (according to my reading) your pop-psychology-biologically-reductive-behaviorist Maslow’s-hierarchy-of-needs account of human functioning? Moreover, how can you describe worship in a way that is not simply self-worship?
You are operating from a set of assumptions that are different than the assumptions I’m working with. Your set of assumptions apparently does not allow one to simultaneously do anything for another person; rather, one would have to FIRST act out of “self-preservation.” This assumes that one can be a self BEFORE one is in relation with others. Here again I disagree, and my disagreement does not constitute a relativism. Yes, you are an eternal intelligence but so am I. Have we existed in isolated worlds throughout eternity, or have we always been in relation to each other? And if the answer is yes, how is that a relativism? Moreover, the issue is not whether you or I are without beginning or end, the issue is what is the fundamental nature of what such a being is. You say an isolated self (it appears), I say a relational self. We can certainly disagree, but I don’t see how my position is a relativism.
“You are operating from a set of assumptions that are different than the assumptions I’m working with.” That is the only point I’m clear on here. It seems you prefer the term “relational” vs. the term I chose to describe your position (relativism), so your term is fine with me. I was merely trying to understand your point by using the term “relativism.” That’s the basis of our different perspective, though, as you say, and yet it’s subtle. I don’t really see us as fully isolated beings, but I do see that there is a self that transcends (or is separate from) relationships.
I see no dichotomy between self-preservation, which is a basic instinct and choosing to love others, which is a choice. Can you do otherwise from loving one whom you love? Yes, you absolutely can. You can drive your love out through criticism or denigration, or any number of behaviors.
I found the following in the ward bulletin this morning, which meshes nicely with my experiences I expressed in a comment here several days ago.
“True, enduring happiness, with the accompanying strength, courage, and capacity to overcome the greatest difficulties, will come as you center your life in Jesus Christ. Obedience to His teachings provides a secure ascent in the journey of life. That takes effort. While there is no guarantee of overnight results, there is the assurance that, in the Lord’s time, solutions will come, peace will prevail, and happiness will be yours.” Elder Richard G. Scott – October 2006 General Conference
I too have thought a lot about the obedience/happiness math and my own belief is that being obiedient does not = happiness. I think being a good person makes you happy. Caring for all you can, doing your best and trying to make those around you happy. It certainly works for me and my family.
For years I have ‘towed (toed??) the line and followed every commandment the church has taught me whilst trying to surpress the natural man (woman) in me. Now, instead of being angry and frustrated when my husband leaves me home for the third night in a row to attend to church duties, I embrace the other things I cannot do when he is home. I have had very deep and emotional feelings about another man for several years and we are having an affair. He serves on the Bishopric and is happily married too as am I. We have no plans to leave our partners and continue to serve faithfully in our callings, trying our best to help and support and love all those around us. Are we being obiedient? Not to everythig no, are we happy? Yes, very. Our partners are happy because we are happy. We are not hurting anyone, we are just finding some solace in each other in a very chaotic world where without what we have, we would be lying to ourselves that everything was great. Before this relationship commenced, we were both unhappy, trying to supress the feelings we had. As a result, our partners suffered. Now we are all happy.
I believe in an old seminary manual from the 40s the Brethren said something about happiness being found in being “swingers.”
I am completely kidding, and I am glad you have found happiness outofit.
“I needed to make up for my disobedience as a teenager”
No you don’t. You need to change your future. God will take care of you past.
“I knew I couldn’t live a perfect life”
Yes you can. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) and “…the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Nephi 3:7). When God gives commandments as we find in the scriptures, He is speaking to people in this life. He’s not talking to people in the pre-existence or to people that have all ready passed on. Once we leave this existence, our probation is done. The test is over. The commandments He gives concerns mortals. In Matthew He commands mortals to be perfect. In 1 Nephi we learn that He will never give (mortals) a commandment that can’t be accomplished (yes, in this life). In fact, the way to do it has all ready been, divinely, prepared. So never mind all this chirping going on in the Church that it can’t be done. That’s not true.
Andrew, I loved reading about your attempt at a perfect day. Your plan was virtually impeccable. Time management, reading the scriptures, studying your language for your mission, cutting all negative characteristics and get this – not only in your words but even in your thoughts. Amazing for a nineteen year old kid.
“As you might imagine, my quest to live a perfect day made me miserable.”
Andrew!?! What? No. I can’t imagine that all. You were well on you way. Such a sad, sad, ending.
“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.”
No! That’s not right! Your noticing the disobedience of others was a product of your commitment to perfection but your commitment to perfection did not make you critical and judgmental of others. Deception by the adversary caused you to be critical of their ,less than perfect behavior, in the light of your commitment to perfect behavior. Your commitment to perfection should have increased your love for others – not decreased it. Trying to become more like the Savior will increased your love for others until your love for others becomes like your Savior’s love for you. For a nineteen year old your attempt was nothing short of breath taking. You were almost there. SO TRY IT AGAIN.
This world needs some perfect people – not just a bunch of people who say it can’t be done. This time you will have more street smarts. When you start thinking critical thoughts, you will change your course and in time the love will flow without restraint.
Live your perfect day, than your perfect week, than your perfect year, and than your perfect rest of your life.
“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.”
Woops. Better read that again. According to the story, when Lehi arrived at the tree, the iron rod was not even there yet. He saw the tree from for off and went straight to it. The mist of darkness which came later made the iron rod necessary.
When you try for perfection, again, you will notice that the closer you come to God the more you will dispel darkness from around you and your vision will be clear while those around you will be groping in darkness.
Hi, I am posting from Japan and sorry for my mis-spelling I am going to have…
I had exactly the same kind of experience as Andrew and I am having another re-examination about my religion right now, and I really like the idea that keeping the commandment means to love God and our neighbor.
It’s interesting that in our last conference, President Uchdorf? said exactly that. He said keeping the commandments means to love our God and our neighbor. But I was very discouraged when I heard the next talk from another session (Saturday afternoon?) who said something like, our pass to celestial kingdom depends on how much we are obedient to the laws.
That kind of talk makes me feel like I need to be strictly keeping “all the commandments” there are. And that makes me become unhappy. Love is not enough? I still am struggling to learn what mormonism is, right now.
If other minor commandments such as going to the temple often, organizing and keeping our house clean, having a good FHE, having a family scripture time everyday, having a personal scripture time every day, etc are there for us to be happy on earth feeling love amongst ourselves, I think the church would say stuff like “the most important one is love and everything else is not that important so take it easy.” But instead, they say stuff like, “your salvation depends on how obedient you were to the God’s laws.” Can someone give me light and knowledge, please?