Revelation: Two Talks with Two Themes

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 244th week, and we’re covering the Saturday morning session of the October 1989 General Conference. 

I enjoyed Elder Faust’s and Elder Packer’s talks, and especially the two of them together. In Continuous Revelation, Elder Faust pointed out that “over the centuries revelation from prophets has come incrementally” and that “much of it is not spectacular.” He also cited President John Taylor, who said:

Adam’s revelation did not instruct Noah to build his ark; nor did Noah’s revelation tell Lot to forsake Sodom; nor did either of these speak of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. These all had revelations for themselves.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I read these kinds of comments as gentle concessions, almost. Joseph Smith produced revelations like water coming from a firehose, and it’s hard for me not to feel a little disappointed that revelations have seemed to come so sparsely from the prophets who have succeeded him. I need these little reminders that Joseph Smith is a special case, and not the baseline. (I also feel as though the pace of revelation has quickened under President Nelson, although that might just be because I’m paying more attention in recent years.)

Elder Faust had a couple more interesting things to say. On the stern side, he said:

I do not believe members of this church can be in full harmony with the Savior without sustaining his living prophet on the earth, the President of the Church. If we do not sustain the living prophet, whoever he may be, we die spiritually. Ironically, some have died spiritually by exclusively following prophets who have long been dead. Others equivocate in their support of living prophets, trying to lift themselves up by putting down the living prophets, however subtly.

It’s interesting to me that in the same talk he also cited Brigham Young’s famous fear about the Saints relying too much on prophets:

I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.

This is such an interesting tension to me! Tensions like this have long been the most compelling parts of the Restored Gospel, and have shaped much of how I view my faith. We come to Earth to grow. Growth is always accompanied by stress, strain, and discomfort. These two injunctions aren’t actually contradictory–we can sustain the prophets and think for ourselves at the same time–but they definitely pull in different directions. They subject us to stress, strain, and a little mental and spiritual discomfort. Not everything that is uncomfortable is related to beneficial growth. Sometimes we just stub our toe and it hurts for no profound reason.

But when I see commandments that deliberately pull us into tension, I think: yes, that’s the point. That’s where the growth comes from.

Elder Packer’s talk, Revelation in a Changing World, was a good companion to Elder Faust’s. He picked up a similar theme of downplaying the drama surrounding revelation, saying specifically that:

The patterns of revelation are not dramatic. The voice of inspiration is a still voice, a small voice. There need be no trance, no sanctimonious declaration. It is quieter and simpler than that.

He also said something so surprising to me that I shared it immediately on Facebook (I do that with a lot of interesting quotes). It was:

Things of the Spirit need not—indeed, should not—require our uninterrupted time and attention. Ordinary work-a-day things occupy most of our attention. And that is as it should be. We are mortal beings living in this physical world.

Spiritual things are like leavening. By measure they may be very small, but by influence they affect all that we do.

This is an important point for those of us seeking to live lives of sincere discipleship and consecration… but also trying to navigate our day jobs so that our family can eat. It resonates with another of my favorite religious themes: that the sacred and the mundane can coexist.

I still remember a tense argument I had when I was studying a traditional martial art in high school. Most of the students were much older, and I got into an argument with one of them in a long car ride back from a teaching session in D.C. because I made the statement that all experiences could be spiritual if we had the right mindset, and he thought that was stupid. More than two decades later, I think I had that one right. 

Of course it’s important to go to sacred spaces and seek special, separate sacred experiences, but if we’re living our lives right, we’re also going to find spiritual experiences in unexpected, ordinary moments of day-to-day living. Especially in our homes and with our families. Sacred experiences don’t have to take place in special times and places. They can–and do, for those who are keeping an eye out–happen in the most ordinary circumstances imaginable: giving you kids a bath, sitting down to a meal with family, drifting off to sleep in the knowledge that those you love most are all quietly slumbering under the same roof. These are the most profound experiences a human can have.

Become Your Own Judges

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday afternoon session of the April 1989 General Conference

I found most of the talks really interesting and relevant this session, beginning with Elder Nelson’s talk, The Canker of Contention. Much of it was familiar territory, especially in the importance of standing for truth without being contentious, but a couple of points surprised me. It’s important to pay attention to the details of the talks, because sometimes you think you know what they’re going to say, but they say something slightly different. The difference between hearing you expect–or even: hearing what you want to hear–and hearing what is actually being said is found in careful reading.

So, for example, Elder Nelson said that “the family has been under attack ever since Satan first taunted Adam and Eve,” and as someone steeped in the culture wars of the 21st century when I hear “family under attack” I think of the progressive cultural elements that devalue traditional families. While that certainly applies, Elder Nelson’s next sentence shows that it’s not what he was talking about. He went on: “So today, each must guard against the hazard of contention in the family.” (emphasis added)

He wasn’t talking about outside attacks on the family, but the danger of contention between spouses and between siblings and between parents and children within the family. I nearly missed that.

I also found the quote from Thomas B. Marsh that “If there are any among this people who should ever apostatize and do as I have done, prepare your backs for a good whipping, if you are such as the Lord loves.” Although it’s really just a restatement of familiar verses like Hebrews 12:6 (“whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth”) and Revelations 3:19 (“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten”), hearing it phrased this way definitely got me to see the sentiment anew. And I’ve got to say, I’ve gone through this experience a few times in the past couple of months–albeit on a smaller scale than Brother Marsh–and I echo his sentiments. The Lord has shown me things that I’ve been doing wrong for a long, long time and made me realize how much I need to repent. I felt chastened. I felt ashamed. I felt sorry. But I also felt noticed and respected and loved

This brings me to the talk that really grabbed my attention the most, which was Elder Bushe’s University for Eternal Life. I’m still mulling over the talk, but here’s the part of the talk that grabbed my attention the most:

It seems that we can only effectively go through the process of continuous repentance if we literally learn to become our own judges. We ourselves and the Lord are the only ones who really know us. We do not even know ourselves unless we have learned to walk the lonely and most challenging road toward self-honesty, as constantly prompted by the Spirit.

This is the sacrifice we have to learn to offer. Nobody will ever be able to understand or even to accept principles of truth unless he or she, to some degree, has developed a painful awareness of the dimensions of self-honesty. Without the capability to recognize truth, we will not be really free: we will be slaves to habits or prejudices heavily covered with excuses. But learning to become aware of the depth of the dimensions of truth will make us free. We cannot remove a stumbling block unless we see it first. We cannot grow unless we know what is holding us back.

There’s an awful lot to unpack here, and I’m not going to try to that job at the moment. I’m just sharing a passage that I know I’ll be thinking and pondering as I try to work my way through it.

I found another great quote in talk by Sister Joy Evans: “Lord, When Saw We Thee An Hungered“:

Certainly, in our own little sphere it is not the most active people to whom we owe the most. Among the common people whom we know, it is not necessarily those who are busiest, not those who, meteor-like, are ever on the rush after some visible charge and work. It is the lives, like the stars, which simply pour down on us the calm light of their bright and faithful being, up to which we look and out of which we gather the deepest calm and courage. It seems to me that there is reassurance here for many of us who seem to have no chance for active usefulness. We can do nothing for our fellow-men. But still it is good to know that we can be something for them; to know (and this we may know surely) that no man or woman of the humblest sort can really be strong, gentle, pure, and good, without the world being better for it, without somebody being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.

I loved this quote so much I looked up the original author (not mentioned by name in Sister Evans’ talk). It’s from Phillips Brooks who (via Wikipedia) was “an American Episcopal clergyman and author, long the Rector of Boston’s Trinity Church and briefly Bishop of Massachusetts, and particularly remembered as lyricist of the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.” 

So that brings us to the end of the April 1989 General Conference. I definitely learned a lot from the talks in this Conference, and I’m looking forward to starting in on the October 1989 General Conference for next week.

Nuclear and Kindred Families

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday morning session of the April 1989 General Conference

I remember being taught about the “nuclear family” sometime in middle school, although I don’t remember the context at all. As near as I can tell (some Googling, a little memory, and this Quora article), the etymology of the word is the same as the “nuclear” in “nuclear fusion” or “nuclear reactor”:

‘nuclear family’ = father+mother+children

The adjective nuclear in this phrase is actually one and the same as the one used in ‘nuclear fission’ or ‘nuclear reactor’. It is derived from the latin word nucleus, a [diminutive] form of the original word, nux.

Nux literally means ‘a nut’, but was also figuratively used to signify ‘the core of something’.

nux = nut, core

nucleus = a small nut, a small core

nuclear = pertaining to a small core

I know that there are sociologists and anthropologists and historians who could go into a lot more detail than I’m about to, but there’s a central point that I think it’s important for Latter-day Saints to make: and this is that there is a problem with the “nuclear family”. It’s not the preferred family unit for Latter-day Saints. It’s only a part of it.

In this session, Elder Richard. J. Clarke spoke about that directly, advocating for a slightly different family arrangement he called “kindred family”:

In earliest biblical culture, the family was more than a parent and child unit. It included all who were related by blood and marriage. This kindred family, as I prefer to call it, was strongly linked by natural affection and the patriarchal priesthood. The elderly were venerated for their experience and wisdom. There were strength and safety in numbers, and, through love and support, members established solidarity and continuity.

Clarke’s “kindred family” corresponds to what we generally refer to as the “extended family“. In one sense, the kindred/extended family isn’t an alternative or competitor to the nuclear family, but rather a partner / addition to it. (It’s right in the name: an extended family is an extension of the nuclear family).

But there is a sense in which the two models are in competition. The nuclear family rose to prominence in the United States in the 1950s, which was a period of huge social mobility and economic opportunity (at least, for white Americans). Starting at that point and continuing to today, Americans are in the habit of migrating around for work, and they don’t do it in extended family units anymore (as they might have when heading for the frontier) but in nuclear families. Mom and dad get married, move to a new city for a job, and the kids come with them. Grandma, grandpa, and cousins are left behind or scattered to their own cities.

In this sense, the nuclear family is a competing model to the extended / kindred family. And in this sense, it makes sense to criticize the nuclear family as a kind of dirty compromise with consumerist society. 

All societies compete for status, and all variants of this competition are sinful. (Elder Maxwell briefly touched on this in his own talk from this session.) In the West in general and the United States in particular, consumerism is the kind of status-seeking that we’re infected with. It revolves around not only amassing and acquiring physical goods (which, again, is a universal part of all human societies) but the particular ways in which we’ve ritualized consumption. This might all sound a little abstract, so just picture the hordes of people who might wait in line for days to get the newest iPhone and you might see what I’m getting at it. All societies want to collect more stuff, but consumerist societies have brands (as another example). 

Well, the nuclear family is a lot more mobile than extended families, and that serves the interests of corporations who want to be able to move their workforce fairly rapidly in response to changing legal and economic considerations. The “single-family home”, the suburbs, all of it is good in the sense in which having a mother and father stay with their children is vital and the nuclear family really is the core of the extended / kindred family. But it’s bad in the sense that it separates nuclear families from each other so that cousins don’t grow up knowing and playing with each other and adult children are not more able to benefit from the guidance of their elders and in turn support infirm parents in the last years of their lives. That’s sort of the darkest side of all of this: since sons and daughters move far away from their parents, they have to outsource their care to specialized facilities.

So some critiques of the nuclear family are compatible with and even inspired by the Gospel. The nuclear family should not be allowed to become an enemy to kindred families. To tribes and clans. 

But of course most criticisms of the nuclear family come from a different direction. Instead of embracing the blood bonds typified by parents and children and then extended to cousins and grandchildren and grandparents, they look for alternatives that invalidate kindred bonds entirely. It’s a staple of modern entertainment that family isn’t the blood relations you’re born with, but rather the eclectic bunch of people you really like and choose for yourself. And of course all extreme political ideologies view the family as a threat, since loyalty to kindred is a competitor for loyalty to the state. 

Criticisms of the nuclear family that denigrate or replace parent-child bonds are destructive and wrong. Criticisms of the nuclear family that laud and augment parent-child bonds are constructive and, in at least some cases, correct.

As in so many things, it’s really a question of balance. There are nuclear families, extended families, nations and ethnicities (extended extended families) and, ultimately, one entire human family. In the Gospel, all of these levels of family work together, from the nuclear family to the human family. We should beware of alternatives that work to exaggerate particular levels of this hierarchy in ways that turn God’s children against each other. The consumerist advocacy of nuclear families against extended families is a subtle example of perverting the concept of family. The racist advocacy of extended extended families (ethnicities) against a universal human family is an obvious example. 

I wrote this piece because I know Latter-day Saints have a reflexive defensiveness whenever anyone critiques the nuclear family, and I wanted to put that defensiveness (which is usually well-founded, since the most common attacks undermine rather than build up kin relationships) in context.  

Although I’m not an expert, talks like this help guide me through some of the complexities of modern life. There are an awful lot of voices saying an awful lot of things, and it’s easy to become distracted or dismayed. We are at risk of letting go of true principles because we are tricked by an imitation good, and we’re also at risk of holding on too tightly to principles that aren’t quite right because we’re afraid of any change from what is familiar.

The only way through the tangled mess is to focus on the fundamentals–scripture study and prayer, in particular–and also to pay very, very close attention to the teachings of our leaders. Heavenly Father could lead us all individually, but His plan involves groups like families and churches because the journey back to Him is not one that we can complete alone. We have to do it together. As communities. As families. That’s one reason we have leaders, and–as long as we have them–we sure better pay attention to them.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the priesthood session of the April 1989 General Conference

When I read Elder Scott’s talk, Trust in the Lord, and got the part where he said, “I repeat: Don’t face the world alone. Trust in the Lord,” I knew what the title of this post was going to be. For those not in the know (and I had to Google to confirm I remembered the details right), the “It’s dangerous to go alone!” meme is from the 1986 NES video game The Legend of Zelda. Good advice for young heroes setting off to rescue princesses. Even better advice for all of us, and that’s never felt more universally relevant than in 2020. I mean, things are crazy, right? Crazy.

It’s important to have a clear-eyed view of the dangers that we face, but it’s also important not to let ourselves ever be overwhelmed or cowed by the darkness. Things are crazy, but we’re not alone. That’s the message of one of my favorite songs, Image of the Invisible by Thrice.

The chorus is impossible for me not to shout/sing along with:

we all were lost now we are found
no one can stop us or slow us down
we are all named and we are all known
we know that we’ll never walk alone

Not only is it important to keep fear at bay when we think about the confusing difficulties that surround us, but it’s also important to realize that the difficulty of this world is by design. That’s a major theme–perhaps the major theme–of the series of posts I’ve been writing for Public Square (starting with this one). And it’s exactly what Elder Scott reminded us in his talk:

In many ways, the world is like a jungle, with dangers that can harm or mutilate your body, enslave or destroy your mind, or decimate your morality. It was intended that life be a challenge, not so that you would fail, but that you might succeed through overcoming.

Two other quotes from Elder Scott’s talk really stood out to me. The first is a dose of tough love.

Has one of you ever had the feeling you are walking alone down a dark tunnel that gets ever more depressing? No one seems to care? Life gets more and more complicated, and discouraging? You may have been following a path many others have trod. It often begins with self-pity, then self-indulgence, and, if not checked, leads to gross selfishness.

Unless overcome by serving others, selfishness leads to serious sin, with its depressing feelings and binding chains. It is the crowbar Satan uses to open a heart to temptation in order to destroy agency. He would bind mind and body through crippling habits and separate us from our Father in Heaven and His Son by cultivating selfishness.

If you have had such feelings of depression, turn around—literally turn your life around. The other end of the tunnel is filled with light. No matter where you have been or what you have done, that light is always available to you. Satan will try to convince you that you have gone too far to be saved. That is a lie. You will need some help to get started. The scriptures are a good place to begin. A father, mother, brother, sister, bishop, or friend will help. As you move nearer the light through repentance, you will feel better about yourself and more confident in your future. You will rediscover how wonderful life really is.

The second is a practical reminder to focus on doing the little things consistently right so that–when unplanned crises strike–you will be ready.

Getting through the hazards of life requires understanding, skill, experience, and self-assurance like that required to sink a difficult basket under pressure. In the game of life, that is called righteous character. Such character is not developed in moments of great challenge or temptation. That is when it is used. Character is woven quietly from the threads of hundreds of correct decisions (like practice sessions). When strengthened by obedience and worthy acts, correct decisions form a fabric of character that brings victory in time of great need.

Righteous character provides the foundation of spiritual strength that enables you to make difficult, extremely important decisions correctly when they seem overpowering.

I got a lot out of this talk, and so I’m going to leave it here. 

After all, I’ve got to get to work redoubling my efforts to apply this council in my life.

The Shortest Distance is a Straight Line

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Saturday afternoon session of the April 1989 General Conference

I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of Elder Oaks’ talk, Alternate Voices, already. But I hadn’t read it before today. Nor had I read Elder Pace’s talk, Follow the Prophet. But the two really go together. 

I also happen to have read my father’s final draft of the authorized Eugene England biography just a couple of months ago. (It’s not out yet.) I don’t have the details firmly in mind, but–if I recollect at all correctly–Elder Oaks’ talk was directed at least partially towards Dialogue (which Eugene England helped found in 1966) and Sunstone (which started up in 1974). Meanwhile, the September Six were just four years in the future from this General Conference. A lot was going on in Mormon intellectual circles, to put it mildly, and the echoes still reverberate today.

I wouldn’t have really been aware of any of that in 1989, if I listened to the General Conference live, because I was just a kid. I’m still not really well-versed in this history, but I do have vague notions of it, at least. And so I was surprised–and this certainly isn’t the first time–at how gentle and reasonable these talks were.

Consider Elder Pace’s discussion of the three sources of criticism directed at the Church. First, he considers criticism that comes from outside the Church:

Responsible nonmember teasing and criticism is harmless. In fact, it helps keep us on our toes. Occasionally, we need to step back and look at ourselves from a nonmember’s perspective. Really now, to them, aren’t we just a little bit strange? Imagine yourself coming into a Mormon community for the first time and hearing talk about gold plates, an angel named Moroni, and baptisms for the dead. Imagine seeing, for the first time, nine children and two beleaguered parents in a beat-up station wagon with a bumper sticker reading, “Families are Forever.” The puzzled nonmember doesn’t know if this is a boast or a complaint. And where do these families go to church? At a stake house. We are strange to nonmembers—until they get to know us.

This is self-aware and, honestly, pretty hilarious. He goes on: 

In this regard, my counsel to members would be to relax, lighten up, mellow out, and not get so huffy. While the gospel is sacred and serious, sometimes we take ourselves a little too seriously. A sense of humor, especially about ourselves, is an attribute worthy of development.

Turning more serious, he acknowledged that a lot of the criticisms have real merit, urging Latter-day Saints to take responsibility and fix the problems: 

Criticism always hurts most when we deserve it… We would eliminate the most painful criticism from responsible nonmembers by simply internalizing and living what the Church teaches.

Even when it comes to criticism from the most controversial source–former members–Elder Pace’s words surprise anyone who comes looking for a fight: “The danger lies not in what may come from a member critic, but in the chance that we might become one.”

Elder Pace then closes out with a description of the perils of prideful intellectualism that seem more relevant today than ever, noting that:

Our problem today is with members who seem very vulnerable to the trends in society (and the pointing fingers which attend them) and want the Church to change its position to accommodate them. 

It doesn’t get much more on-target than that.

So next up was Elder Oaks’ (in)famous talk. Here, again, I was surprised. I guess I’ve tended to hear about these talks from folks who felt stung by them, so my expectation is always that I’ll see some pretty harsh words. Instead, I was kind of shocked to see that Elder Oaks’ starts out by defending space for “alternative voices”:

Some alternate voices are those of well-motivated men and women who are merely trying to serve their brothers and sisters and further the cause of Zion. Their efforts fit within the Lord’s teaching that his servants should not have to be commanded in all things, but “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”

As someone who’s been blogging about the Church for almost ten years now, I realized that this means I’m an “alternative voice” and–I certainly hope–among those who “fit within the Lord’s teaching.”

This is not what I expected to find in this talk.

Elder Oaks then turned to the kinds of conferences and journals where it’s common to find defenders of the Church sharing pages with detractors, and here again his discussion–though frank–was nuanced and surprisingly open-minded. Far from a kind of absolutist puritanism, this is the counsel Elder Oaks had for members considering participating in forums like those:

Some of life’s most complicated decisions involve mixtures of good and evil. To what extent can one seek the benefit of something good one desires when this can only be done by simultaneously promoting something bad one opposes? That is a personal decision, but it needs to be made with a sophisticated view of the entire circumstance and with a prayer for heavenly guidance.

No simplistic checklists. No ultimatums. Instead, an appeal for responsible weighing of competing pros and cons with a “sophisticated view of the entire circumstance.” This is not the rhetoric of a church intent on controlling or manipulating its members, but one that is serious about having disciples develop their own, independent testimonies and convictions. 

I found both of these talks–along with others that I don’t have time to delve into–substantive, provocative (in a good way), and edifying. This is good stuff. I really appreciate the counsel and guidance from our prophets, seers, and revelators. 

And, in the end, I come back to what Elder Pace said early on in his talk and what I used as the title for this post: “the shortest distance from the world to the celestial kingdom is a straight line.”

I love thinking about these things, and writing about them, too. For me, theology is a kind of worship, akin to singing or painting. It’s a way to bend our minds and hearts to God. Even when we get it wrong, it still lifts our gaze to heaven. It reminds me of singing along with an awesome song in the car. If, like me, you’re not a very good singer, you still enjoy being a part of the song, even if you’re not actually getting it right.

But intellectuals needs to understand their places. We can use our bodies to serve others–digging ditches or carrying heavy loads–and so strong and healthy bodies can be useful in the service of God. But becoming a saint isn’t accomplished solely by body-building. Same idea applies here. We can use our minds to serve others–writing words to edify and teach and inspire–but preening and refining our theories and intellects can’t be the totality of our discipleship or we’ve missed. 
Sharp minds and strong muscles can be a part of discipleship, but only if they are properly seen as means to a higher end: love of neighbor and love of God. In that pursuit and in no other way, intellectualism–like all talents–reaches beyond mortal meaningless to become something great and truly good.

Enslaved to Status No More

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Saturday morning session of the April 1989 General Conference

President Benson’s talk on pride is one that I’m sure I’ve heard referenced before, and that makes me think it’s got to be one of the most famous General Conference talks of my lifetime. But I don’t think I’d ever read it all the way through before today. I’m glad that I did. There’s an awful lot in it that seems directly relevant to our tumultuous times, and I wish I could hear President Benson’s views of the last couple of years. I don’t think he’d be surprised at all.

“In the scriptures, there is no such thing as righteous pride,” he taught. “It is always considered a sin.” He went on to describe pride as fundamentally competitive in nature, literally saying “pride is essentially competitive in nature” and then adding that “The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others.”

This leads to enmity, and also to fear, a “fear of men’s judgment” that, in turns, leads to yet more “competition for men’s approval.” Ironically, this means that pride leads directly to subservience: “When pride has a hold on our hearts, we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment.”

There’s much, much more in the talk worth reading, but I want to stop here for a moment and focus on this concept. I’ve been making my way through N. T. Wright’s, “The Day the Revolution Began,” in which he argues that the fundamental sin is idolatry. I don’t think that Wright’s view of idolatry and Benson’s statement that it’s pride are actually that different, if they’re different at all, because idolatry is really about putting something else ahead of God. We always think it’s ourselves, which is why it’s really the same as pride, but it always ends up being something else–some desire or fear or addiction–that becomes a cruel god over us in the end. 

It also reminds me of the concept of a “zero sum game”. The concept of a zero sum game comes from game theory, which means it’s not really about games that people play for fun or sport. In game theory, a “game” is more like a competition. There are one or more “players”, and each one of them has a variety of actions they can take. Depending on the actions they take, the players get “payoffs” at the end of the game, which can be positive or negative. The most famous game from game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma, where two players each have an option of cooperating with the other player or betraying the other player. If they both cooperate, they both win. But if one of them betrays the other (and that other one tries to cooperate) than the betrayer wins even more

The point of the prisoner’s dilemma is that it’s always rational to betray the other player, but–as games go–it’s a relatively nice one because at least cooperation is possible. In fact, a lot of basic game theory studies what you need to add to make it rational for players in the prisoner’s dilemma to cooperate.

Because players can cooperate and both win, the prisoner’s dilemma is a positive sum game. This separates it from zero sum games. In a zero sum game, the only way for one player to get a positive payoff is by hurting some other player. That’s what makes it a “zero sum” game, any benefit from one player is canceled by a cost to another player, meaning that the total benefit for all players is always zero. 

All human beings are trapped in a life-long zero sum game whether we realize it or not. The payoff of the game is status. It’s a zero sum game because there’s no way for everyone to have more status at the same time. Status is relative. There’s no absolute amount of status you can have. A person only has either more or less than other people. Even if you don’t hurt someone else to get your own status, the fact that you move up in the hierarchy means they have to move down.

This zero sum status game is what President Benson is talking about when he says that we “we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment.” If you are prideful, you’re giving in to the status game. You’re handing over your independence and allowing the world to tell you how much you are worth. It’s a vicious, zero-sum game that is never over. And that means no one ever wins. And as long as you’re playing it, then everyone else is your enemy.

As Jordan Peterson famously described in his book Twelve Simple Rules, the status game is almost as old as life itself. Ancient animals–he used the example of lobsters–play basically the same status game that humans are tempted to play. The idea of a social hierarchy with winners and losers is part of our DNA. 

If you think you don’t care about status, you’re kidding yourself. I’m not a very competitive person by nature and for a long time I thought I was pretty independent of these kinds of games, but I realized recently that I was fooling myself. Which means I was hiding my pride.

The reality is that I crave recognition. I’m a little picky about who I get it from and what I’m recognized for, but the thought that I could spend my whole life striving to be a writer and fail was terrifying to me. Because–even though I have a testimony and believe in God and try to follow the commandments–I was still prideful. I wanted to win my way. And I wanted other people to notice and reward me. And that made me idolatrous and afraid and ashamed. 

I’ve been trying to repent. It’s not easy. These habits are deep, deep down inside of us. They’re part of the natural man that is an enemy to God. And they can hide inside of us in ways that are hard for us to see. As President Benson said, “Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves.” This is especially true if we don’t feel we have much to be proud of. I want to write books that everyone reads and agrees are really wonderful and then they give me lots of awards and make TV shows and movies out of my books. I want people to ask me for my opinion about storytelling and art and then all listen attentively because I’m important

But how can I see myself as prideful if those dreams are totally unrealized? I’m not famous. I’ve never written a whole book, fiction or non-fiction. I’ve written dozens of short stories, but only one has ever been published so far. I have nothing to be proud of, so I can’t be guilty of pride, can I?

Yes, I can. And I was. I am, although I’m also repenting. It’s just the desire for that recognition that’s the sin, whether or not you have it  yet. It’s the twisted desire to be seen as better than that causes the problems, regardless of you’re actually accomplishing it or not.

When God finally showed me–a few weeks before I read this talk–how much pride I had inside I was shocked. But I also realized there’s a way out. 

My prideful plan had basically two parts. First, I wanted to be admitted by the cool kids as one of their own. I wanted authors I respect and admire to see me as one of their own. I wanted to sit with the cool kids at lunch. That’s literally how I described it to myself.

Second, I wanted to create a body of work that would prove I was a valuable person. I wanted to be able to point to a stack of books and say, “See, I’m not worthless. I wrote those, and they matter.” 

And of the two, the second mattered more. I wanted a legacy that would serve as the sign of my value and worth. That would prove I wasn’t like other people. I was special. I was different. I was better.

These hypothetical books: they were my treasure. And my heart was set upon it. And as long as my heart was set upon it, I was violating the basic commandment Jesus taught in Matthew 6:

19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

My heart was here. On Earth. It wasn’t physical. Moth and rust couldn’t literally corrupt it. But it was still earthly. It was subject to popularity and luck and whim. And so my heart was trapped and I was handing myself over to the infinite, zero-sum status game. I was letting myself be captured by the world.

I don’t want to do that any more. I revoke my citizenship and withdraw my heart from the world. I don’t entrust my legacy to anything on earth. I give my legacy to God. 

Making this decision felt like lifting a physical weight off my shoulders that I never even knew I was carrying around. I realized that, as far as the world was concerned, this decision made me untouchable. So much fear and anxiety and shame–shame that I haven’t accomplished more already–evaporated. I am putting all my chips on God. 

This is easier said than done. A lifetime of habit on top of millions of years of evolution don’t just disappear overnight. Repentance is a process, not an event. 

But I know at a deep, visceral level that President Benson’s teachings on pride are true. I know that more of us are guilty of it than realize it. Because pride is not a sin of the elite. It’s a sin of everyone. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that once you see it, you can start to recover. And recovery tastes sweet. You won’t even realize how much you’ve been living in fear and shame until you realize there’s another way to live.

And once you do, you’ll never want to go back.

Read more posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

Be Good Now, Perfect Later

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the general women’s session of the October 1988 General Conference.

I enjoyed the slight tinge of irony in reading the talks from the general women’s session on Father’s Day. This irony was compounded a little bit when I realized that the talk begining with “I have prepared my message especially for you ten- and eleven-year-old girls.” was the one that I found the most personally relevant. That would be Sister Michaelene P. Grassli’s talk, I Will Follow God’s Plan for Me.

One idea that I liked was this one:

as I have studied the word righteousness, I have found nothing that indicates that being righteous is being perfect. Goodness, virtue, morality are all dictionary synonyms, but not perfect. All of us will make mistakes in our lives, but although perfection is our ultimate destination, righteousness, or goodness, is the chariot to carry us there.

There’s a ton to unpack there. For starters, the healthy repudiation of perfectionism. Perfection, at least the way we tend to think about in America, is often about the lack of fault. If something is perfect, than it is unblemished. This is a kind of disturbingly negative definition. Perfection, in this sense, isn’t really that great of a thing to worry about.

There’s an alternate conception of perfection, though, which has to do with wholeness. It’s not about the bad things you avoid, but about the good things you enact. 

You can take this too far and buy into an idea that if you do good things they excuse bad things. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But, in general, I think placing a little less emphasis on avoidance of bad things and a little more emphasis on attraction to good things is warranted. It’s like that quotes about ships being safe in the harbor: a ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for. 

Similarly, we didn’t come to earth to avoid making mistakes. That’s part of what we should do, but in the pursuit of accomplishing good things. And that’s what Sister Grassli is encouraging us to do: embrace goodness, virtue, morality and let perfection come in its own due time.

Another quote that really struck me is this one:

Every good thing you do in your life is following God’s plan. Every time you are kind to another person, each time you have courage to do something difficult, each time you do a thoughtful act without being asked, each time you say your prayers, each time you read the scriptures, each time you go to church, each time you help a friend—you are following God’s plan for you.

This goes to the idea that we’re here for action. We’re here to do things.

And it also takes away from toxic perfectionism. Sometimes we can get paralyzed by wanting to do the best thing or find God’s one true purpose for us. 

We all have missions to accomplish in this life, and there are probably some things that we can do that nobody else could do. Our actions matter. There are real consequences, for ourselves and other people. If we don’t do the thing, the thing (in most cases) will not get done. And that’s bad.

But it’s at least as bad–and probably much, much worse–to pass up on one good opportunity after another because you’re trying to find the perfect one. If there’s a mission for you, then I really don’t think God is going to let you miss it if you’re out there striving to do good in small ways. Work hard, listen out for promptings, do your best, and God’s plan will unfold through your life.

Don’t wait to see it and then act it out. 

Live your best life and then, in retrospect, I believe you’ll see how the plan unfolded through little acts that added up to something bigger than you realized at the time.

So maybe it was Father’s Day and this was the women’s session, and maybe Sister Grassli had tweens in mind when she wrote the talk, but I went ahead and likened them unto me.

Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

It Is Not Sufficient to Treasure the Book of Mormon

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday afternoon session of the October 1988 General Conference.

When I read the scriptures as a teenager, it seemed like they were full of statements that the Gospel of Christ was necessary and sufficient for a prosperous, peaceful society. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain that there are that many scriptures that say exactly this. The one that comes to mind is Alma 31:5 where Alma–who, just as a reminder, had led his people personally into combat as chief judge and killed Amlici–decides that when the Nephites are really in trouble, what is needed is preaching the word of God:

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.

This was impossible for me to believe as a youngster. Surely questions of peaceful, stable societies were questions for experts in international relations or Constitutional law and economics, right? I supposed that there was probably some way in which you’d need to make sure your foreign and domestic policies were reconciled to basic Christian principles, but I couldn’t see any direct connection between religion and peaceful societies, nor any specific link to Christianity as opposed to any number of honorable and laudable religions.

The older I’ve gotten, the more of come to doubt my initial doubts.

For one thing, I’ve come to realize that formal institutions are overrated. The laws on the books don’t tell the whole story. What matters more than politics is culture. It’s culture that largely determines what laws end up on the books, it’s culture that determines how those laws are applied and enforced and–since laws can’t possibly cover every possible scenario–it’s culture that determines what we do in the gaps between laws. This isn’t entirely one-way. Laws and policies can and do affect culture, but if you’re going to ask: which matters more, the answer is very, very clearly culture.

This helps me understand some of why the prophets kept insisting that it’s the Gospel that really matters. It gets me part of the way there. But not all the way.

I’ve had intimations that go beyond this, but nothing I’m prepared to sketch out here. My point is only to say that I really took Elder Richard G. Scott’s words to heart from his talk, True Friends That Lift. (Which, alternatively, could have been a great treatise on bodybuilding.)

Speaking of all the work and effort he’d put into teaching the Gospel and setting the Church in order for six years in Mexico vs. bearing his testimony of the Book of Mormon, he said:

As I spoke, I realized in my heart that all the efforts that I had expended for six years in trying to help those beloved leaders overcome the effects of false traditions and learn to apply the teachings of the Lord would have been better directed had I strongly encouraged them to ponder and apply the teachings of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon contains messages that were divinely placed there to show how to correct the influence of false tradition and how to receive a fulness of life. It teaches how to resolve the problems and challenges that we face today that were foreseen by the Lord. In that book he has provided the way to correct the serious errors of life, but this guidance is of no value if it remains locked in a closed book.

He also pointed out that we can’t treat the Book of Mormon like some kind of talisman or super good luck charm. We have to, you know, read it: “it is not sufficient that we should treasure the Book of Mormon, nor that we testify that it is of God. We must know its truths, incorporate them into our lives, and share them with others.”

My mental models and theories haven’t caught up to this truth, but it still resonates deeply with me. It’s like I have yet to dig up the buried treasure and see it with my own eyes, but the metal detector is pinging and I know there’s something down there. 

I’m going to keep pondering and contemplating how and how the Gospel of Christ is necessary and sufficient because that’s how I approach the world. It’s my means of interacting with the things that I care about. And I  believe that, in time, I’ll come to understand the truth much more than I do now.

But, spoiler alert, I already know how it ends. The Gospel of Christ in general and the Book of Mormon in particular are vitally important both individual and communally, and I hope we will take Elder Scott’s testimony (and the testimony of many others) very seriously and invest the time to integrate them into our lives.

Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey

Families Are Anti-Selfishness Therapy

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday morning session of the October 1988 General Conference.

Three different future Presidents spoke during this session: Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson. It’s possible that a fourth–Dallin H. Oaks–will yet serve in that role. I haven’t run any analysis or anything, but that seems like a pretty huge concentration in just one session. 

The quote that struck me the most came from President Howard W. Hunter’s talk, Blessed from on High. President Hunter made the observation that “it was important to God’s purposes that young Joseph was not able to see too clearly amidst the confusion caused by men, lest that half-light keep him from seeking and beholding the source of all light and all truth.” 

It reminds me of the discussion of weaknesses and strength in Ether 12, but it’s an unexpected application of the idea. Unexpected to me, at least. And it’s always good for me to be reminded that the Lord’s plans don’t always fit my understanding. 

 President Hinckley’s talk, The Healing Power of Christ, also seemed really meaningful for our day: “In a world of sickness and sorrow, of tension and jealousy and greed, there must be much of healing if there is to be life abundant.”

At least, it seemed relevant to the big picture at first, but President Hinckley’s actual topic was more micro than macro: “There is much of another category of sickness among us. I speak of conflicts, quarrels, arguments which are a debilitating disease particularly afflicting families.” 

President Hinckley goes on to say that:

It is selfishness which is the cause of most of our misery. It is as a cankering disease. The healing power of Christ, found in the doctrine of going the second mile, would do wonders to still argument and accusation, fault-finding and evil speaking.

This is definitely true for me. The obligations that come with being a husband and a father chafe against my desire to just do what I want and to just put my goals and priorities first. It’s hard to set those aside and realize that I have children who depend on me and a wonderful wife who agreed to share a life with me. I fail a lot, and end up doing less than I could for them because I want to chase my own happiness.

That’s one of the whole reasons we have families. To give us the opportunity to outgrow that kind of selfishness. To provide opportunities for daily, small-scale sacrifice again and again. To help us learn that it truly is in losing ourselves and serving others that we find real peace and joy.

I’m just kind of dumb, and so it’s a lesson I have to learn a hundred thousand times before it sinks in.

I’m grateful for President Hinckley’s reminder to keep working and focusing on that, because I know my family depends on me, just as I also need them.

Another post from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

Punching Above Our Weight

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the priesthood session of the October 1988 General Conference.

When I was a deacon and I went to priesthood sessions of General Conference for the first time, I felt pretty special when the speaker would say, “Now I want to speak to the young men…” Pretty soon, however, I realized this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. It’s a tradition. There’s at least one talk–and it seems much more than one–that takes that approach in every single priesthood session. 

Well, for the first time, I realized why. In his talke, The Priesthood of God, Elder Wirthlin said:

I wish to speak first to the young men who bear the Aaronic Priesthood. I want you to understand that we have trust and confidence in you. We realize that from your ranks will come the next generation of Church officers, teachers, and community leaders. Most importantly, you will be fathers and patriarchs in your own families. Your tasks then will be to teach and prepare the generation that follows you.

I added that emphasis there, because that ‘s when it hits me: this is the cycle. This is the pattern. You show up as a deacon and they talk to you and then you grow older and it becomes your turn to help the next generation on their way up. 

Maybe it’s obvious, but I never saw it that way until this talk.

The last talk in this session also really stood out to me: (then) Elder Hinckley’s talk To the Bishops of the Church. Now, I’ll frankly state that I hope I’m never a bishop. My dad was a bishop for a while, and it was the busiest I ever saw him. He loved it, don’t get me wrong. And that’s unusual for my dad. Being a bishop changed him. He’s kind of an introverted, taciturn fellow. He’s not someone you’d describe as a “people person”. Except he was when he was a bishop. I’ve never seen him so focused on others. The calling really changed him. 

But, like I said, he was also fantastically busy, and since my own adult life has always involved at least 1.5 jobs at a time, I’ve always been petrified of getting that calling myself. I don’t know how I’d survive the additional responsibility on top of the (too frequent) occasions where I’m working until midnight or 2 or 3 in the morning just trying to get by with my ordinary load.

Which is probably why I haven’t been called. Or come anywhere near it, thank heavens. (Literally.)

But if I ever do, then this is the talk I’ll read every week. There are too many important quotes for me to try and excerpt them. This is just like, the talk on what it means to be a bishop. Read it!

I did have one random thought as I went through it, however. Elder Hinckley made another one of those traditional remarks about how many priesthood holders we have. And it got me thinking. How many do we have, relative to other denominations? 

Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still pretty small in overall numbers. How are we going to fill the Earth if there’s only ten or twenty million of us? Maybe we’ll have much greater growth in the future, but the really fast growth we’ve had in decades past–growth that inspired huge projections for the first half of the 21st century–has largely evaporated. At first glance, we’re still pretty small.

But one of the things I’ve really noticed during the whole Covid-19, stay-at-home period (which I also wrote about here) is how easily the Church can adapt to being home-centered because of our lay priesthood. All adult males have the privilege–conditional on their worthiness–to hold the priesthood. 

I did a quick check. It looks like there are about 400,000 ordained Roman Catholic priests in the whole world and the number is going down. I looked at other denominations–just within the United States–and the most is the Southern Baptist Convention with over 100,000 (again, just in the US). Most other denominations have tens of thousands. 

I don’t know how many LDS Melchizedek Priesthood holders there are. There’s about 16.5 million of us. Figure about ½ are active and about ½ are female, and that gets you to 4 million active males. Cut it in half again (to get just adults) and then in half one more time (just to be conservative) and you still end up with over a million elders and high priests. That’s… a lot. 

These are back-of-the-envelope numbers and I’m not trying to prove anything. Just… show a slightly different way of looking at the size of the Church in terms of its potential influence on the world. In terms of ordained priesthood holders, we may have roughly double the population of the largest Christian denomination in the world. Talk about punching above your weight class!

Maybe that has something to do with how a seemingly small denomination gets out there and fills the world. I’m sure it’s not the whole story, but it may be an important part of it.

Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey: