Thursday, September 15, 2005
My Religion and Me
WHAT (WHO) IS HOLDING ME BACK?
WHAT (WHO) IS HOLDING ME BACK?
Now that we are somewhat oriented in time and space and have begun a consideration of our relationship with our Heavenly Father, it may be well to investigate what the responsibility of each person is to himself and, through himself, to his Father in Heaven. By what are we bound. On whom can we lay the blame for our failures? To whom is the credit due for our triumphs?
THREE TYPES OF SCAPEGOATS
There is a legend about a man who was convicted of a crime and sentenced to thirty years in prison. The turnkey who guarded the cellblock felt that the prisoner was innocent of the charge and therefore left the door to his cell unlocked, expecting the man to escape. Not wanting, however, to be charged with conspiring to aid the prisoner, he did not tell him about the door. He only hoped the prisoner would discover it. The door was unlocked for thirty years, but the prisoner never tried it and thus never escaped! He had made the false assumption about his chances for freedom.
There are at least three assumptions we make about the limits to our freedom that are like prison doors and confine us only because we think they do. Actually they are unlocked doors through which we could walk to claim our freedom and to assume our responsibility. Because we do not know it, we never try to escape. We stay imprisoned like tethered elephants, not knowing our own strength. The three false assumptions are:
1. The people around us make us what we are.
2. We are bound by the thoughts that come unbidden into our minds.
3. We are bound by our feelings which we cannot help.
THE PEOPLE WE KNOW
Those with whom we live and to whom we are closely tied are our families. For years now you have been living in your families. For years now you have been living in your family and have been subject to your parents. You may feel that you are pretty well hemmed in by their rules and opinions. Do you ever hear sentences that begin, “As long as you’re living under my roof…”? You may recall the scripture that put the responsibility for teaching “their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord’ squarely on the shoulders of the parents. “The sin be on the heads of the parents” if they do not teach their children the first principles of the gospel—faith, repentance, and baptism. (D&C 68:25, 28)
Yes, that sin is upon their heads—the sin of failing to do their duty—but your sins are not upon their heads. “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins” (and not for parents’ transgression). Parents, too, will be punished for their own sins and not for their children’s transgressions. (First Article of Faith.) The knife cuts both ways.
Since you were born, you have been growing in freedom. To some degree you have assumed the responsibility for your own actions. At the age of eight, you passed some kind of landmark that marked you as accountable, for your understanding was then considered adequate to know the moral differences between right and wrong. Now you have probably already admitted that you are not a child any more and have become impatient at being treated “like a little kid.” Gradually you have come to feel, then, that ultimately you are your own “boss.” Implicit in saying that is saying, “I accept the responsibility for my own life, and I will take the consequences for what I do.” This is a large order, but each one has to grapple with it.
Your brothers and sisters may seem to interfere in your affairs, may seek to guide you or “boss” you around, may pray for you and wish you well, but they cannot be you. They have, each of them the responsibility for a life—and it is not yours. Your brother is your brother and possibly can be said to be your keeper, but for all his help he cannot accept your responsibility for you.
Take the friends that you yourself have chosen and cultivated. Are they responsible for the kind of person you are becoming? They can be a help and they can be a hindrance. Friends will never matter more to you than they do in your teens. When you get down to it, though, they can do only so much and then you are on your own. They can study with you, but you must take your own final examination. If they could take it for you, what kind of “help” would that be?
Chances are that you are greatly influenced by your friends. If they smoke, you may want to join them. Whether you do or do not is up to you, not to them. It is your choice. There is, too, the possibility that you may influence some waiverer for good if you take a strong stand. Each person is an “I”; each is subject to suggestion; each is swayed by example. When you take charge of yourself, you may be helping someone else do the same thing for himself.
What about your teacher? Are they responsible for the kind of person you are becoming? Again, they provide the tools, expose you to secondhand learning, and even set you on the path to making firsthand discoveries, but they cannot experience life for you. During the time they teach you and ever after, you must plow your own furrow.
Is it true that there are no delinquent children but only delinquent adults? Nonsense. There are both. People can set you a bad or good example, but they cannot force you to imitate it. People can treat you like dirt, but they cannot make you become dirty. People can deny you love and return you evil for every good you do them, but they cannot prevent your giving love nor your returning good for evil. People can show up as phony as hypocritical, but they cannot force you to be phony and hypocritical. Each basic decision about what you will think, say, or do is yours.
One more person scapegoat is always lurking in the background. What about the devil? The Prophet clearly taught that “the devil has no power over us on [except] as we permit him.”1 He taught that God will not use compulsion over us and the devil cannot. Satan is completely shackled when we are righteous. He is rendered impotent as a whimpering child by those who worthily take upon themselves the name and Spirit of Jesus Christ. The prophet taught that God, man, and the devil are “three independent principles”—three active and , therefore, never wholly passive agents. “All men have power to resist the devil.”2
The adversary can rage and buffet, but he cannot possess and dominate unless we permit him to do so. This is likewise true of the whole realm of evil spirits. In the presence of a servant of Jesus Christ they have no overpowering influence unless we let them.
It is difficult, however, to endure in the presence of someone who is obnoxious or irritating or tantalizing. As long as you seek the influence and help of the Father and the Son, you can endure such people or spirits, if need be, forever. To develop that kind of strength is one of the most vital experiences in life. The immature go on in petty crabbing or surrender their standards to the “group.” The mature put such things under their feet. The mature have learned that freedom to become their best is infinitely more valuable than freedom from entanglements with people.
Is much of your quest for freedom a reaction rather than independent action? Do you let others decide how you will behave? Reacting is allowing yourself to be manipulated like a puppet on strings. Someone pushes a button and you grind out the exact reaction called for. A truly free person is not that controllable nor predictable. He decides on his own—independent of expected standard responses—how he will deal with others. Why not make your won definitions of “manliness” and “womanliness” and “courage.” Who is to say for you what is worth fighting for, and what is worth fighting against? Christ was not free from involvements, problems, buffetings, entanglements, but he never sacrificed the freedom of becoming—the carrying out of his mission – to a compulsive effort to free himself from responsibilities. He lived for others; he taught for their salvation; he worked for his Father’s purposes. He might have rescued himself from a challenging temptation, painful abuse, and embarrassing imprisonment, and ignominious death, but he was not concerned with himself, only with others.
THE THOUGHTS WE THINK
Can thoughts ever really be controlled? Thoughts that “pop into our head” do seem to be involuntary. They seem almost as inevitable as the jerk-of-the-knee reflex. We see someone we do not like and are immediately inclined toward spiteful thoughts or a long list of grievances come to mind. Someone we know receives recognition of special honor, and we tend to start thinking jealous thoughts. We go to a movie full of crime and violence and our finer sensitivities are dulled. Immorality or perversion on the screen may make of our minds a sinkhole of fantasies and unworthy brooding.
Then we go to church and hear some quote the words of the Bible:
…whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her [or on a man to lust after him] hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)
Does that mean that to think evil is just as bad as to commit it? No. Does it mean that we are supposed to be able to eliminate all such thoughts the way we can erase words from a sheet of paper? Yes.
Look at the passage again.
It is not the occurrence of ideas in the head, but their lodgment in the heart, their carry-over into one’s motivation and intentions, that degrades. “As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7) In the mind of one man a thought about evil is a cause of revulsion—he cannot even look upon sin except with abhorrence. In the heart of another a thought about evil becomes an evil thought because he cannot look upon sin except with haunted, lustful, unworthy desire.
Throughout the scriptures the heart is used to symbolize the seat of man’s most important desires. To “love with all your heart” is to love without reservation. The heart can also be the combustion chamber of all the degenerate drives of man’s life—anger, jealousy, lust, hostility, and all the rest. That is where the issue lies.
The warning of Jesus is that what we permit to enter our hearts will eventually lead us into action. One who has already committed adultery in his heart will commit it all to soon in fact. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” (Matthew 12:34) That is the meaning of this statement that it is what comes from within that defiles a man. To the Nephites he made this even clearer: “[I would] that ye suffer none of these things to enter into your heart.” (3 Nephi 12:29)
How can we prevent evil thoughts from entering into our hearts? Thoughts that come to mind unbidden can be stifled or choked out. You can really hold only one thought at a time in the center of your mental stage. Temptation occurs when the thought turns into a feeling in the center of your heart.
All of us have seen the cartoons of the demon with the three-pronged shaft who climbs up on your shoulders and whispers evil thoughts into your mind and pushes, and needles, and goads, “Do it! Do it! It won’t matter once. Come on. You owe it to yourself.” The reason such pictures are still in circulation is that they do in fact reflect the kind of pressure we feel in the hour of temptation.
Whereas we assume that such demons, even if the “demons” be ourselves, put thoughts into our minds, the truth is that their most devastating success comes from getting thoughts out of our minds. One who is greatly tempted may develop an unrighteous interest or design in a girl which gives him little time to think about anything else. He thus literally loses thought of everything else—his past, his future, his better and more important commitment, the promises he make yesterday to himself, the resolves for self-control he made last Sunday in sacrament meeting, the dark nights of despair he has already known whenever he has yielded, the loneliness and unworthiness he has felt during time of temptation—all such considerations are driven out, forgotten, wiped out.
Hence the wisdom and power in the counsel of the Christ to our generation. “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” (D&C 6:36.) He might have added, “Forget not.” Does this mean we should look to him though we feel unworthy to lift our eyes?
Yes, in the darkest hour most of all. That is just what it means. Where else shall we find help? We must lift our eyes and our thoughts to heaven, or we can never lift ourselves from the various pits we dig for ourselves.
A simple “help me” spoken in silent prayer can break the compulsion of the temptation. Your ability to anticipate the long-range results of this present betrayal becomes as vivid as the thought of yielding to the present unworthy impulse. Anciently Paul said:
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man [we are all in the same boat]; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
THE FEELING WE HAVE
We are moving, then, from the area of the thoughts we think, into an area that is even closer to home—the feelings we feel. We now ask the question: “Can one control the feeling of his heart?” Are they not utterly beyond our control, rising and falling with the same inevitability as the involuntary pumping of our hearts?
Listen to the wise insight of a modern prophet:
In the first place the spirit is pure, and under the special control and influence of the Lord… Recollect, brothers and sisters, everyone of you when you are tempted, buffeted, and step out of the way inadvertently: when you are overtaken in a fault, or commit an overt act unthinkingly; when you are full of evil passion, and wish to yield to it, then stop and let the spirit, which God has put into your tabernacles, take the lead. If you do that, I will promise that you will overcome all evil, and obtain eternal lives. But many, very many, let the spirit yield to the body and are overcome and destroyed.3
The key word in that passage is “let,” not “make,” your spirit take the lead. To the degree that we reach for our better selves, for our spirits (and always we can reach for help), we find it deep within. At the edge of an abyss, we can always scramble back. The spirit within approves of the good and disapproves of the evil. It throbs with potential power a hundred times greater than that of the flesh. As the Prophet said, the affinity of our spirit nature is for divine things, and “those revelations that will save our spirits will save our bodies.” To be saved in the mortal sense is to be saved from sin and ignorance. To be saved in the eternal sense is to be saved for the wholeness and holiness of celestial life.4
What does it mean to be responsible, then? It means to accept this sovereign truth about yourself—that you are a product of your own freedom, ever being added upon—in charge of your thoughts, your feelings, and your reactions to others. Do not write your own book, One Thousand and One Excuses for School and Home Use. When improvement is in order, discover it, admit it, and look to yourself and to your God for help. This means you never shirk responsibility nor try to pin it on anyone or anything else. You are otherwise accepting a lie. If your life seems filled with misfortunes, failures, problems, you are not alone. Everyone has problems as a necessary part of free agency and personal development. Regardless of what happens outside you, you were and you are, and you will be, in charge of what happens inside.
By your nature, by your spirit birth, by virtue of your being a son or daughter of God, by your degree of knowledge and maturity, you are responsible for your own success or failure in life. This is true whether or not you are willing to face it.
1. Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938), p.181
2. Teachings, p. 189
3. Brigham Young in Journal of Discourses, 26 vol. (London: Latter-day Saints’
Book Depot, 1855-86), 2:256
4. Teachings, p. 355