“The Gospel Gets Me What I Want”: Re-thinking Means-End Religion

In the richness of Mormon thought, you find an intricate array of different ideas and convictions.  Perhaps due to this wealth or “cornucopia” (N. Maxwell) of insights – we Latter-day Saints seem especially prone to certain kinds of language: “by applying what we read in our scriptures, multiple blessings can come”;  “if we really want to grow in happiness and knowledge, we need to make sure to pray”; “if you attend the temple, you will receive many blessings.”

For certain, there is truth in each of these statements.  They also, however, reflect an interesting pattern of how we talk about certain actions and our motivations for doing them.

In 1980, the famous psychotherapist Albert Ellis argued at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association that all devout religious beliefs and practices were harmful to mental health (The Case Against Religiosity).   One psychology researcher from Brigham Young University, Allen Bergin, stood up and challenged his claim. That debate sparked a serious of research studies throughout the next decade – culminating in this conclusion to the debate about whether devout religiosity helps or hurts mental health:  Well, it depends!

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, studies confirmed that the answer depends on what kind of religiosity we’re talking about.  As it turns out, those individuals who are internally or “intrinsically” motivated in their religious observance are more mentally healthy, on average, than other Americans. By contrast, those who are externally or “extrinsically” motivated – e.g., driven for the pursuit of some kind of reward – are less mentally healthy than other Americans, on average [see good summary here; simply put, “extrinsically motivated (persons) use (their) religion, whereas the intrinsically motivated live (their) religion” (Allport & Ross, 1967, p. 434)].

What is it about a ‘means-end’ mentality that seems to subvert religion’s potential and power?  Maybe it has something to do with a subtle focus on personal reward as a motivation for action. Maybe it has something to do with how easy it is to give up when these rewards aren’t present.  Or maybe it’s due to neglected internal dynamics that go hand-in-hand with absorption in what-we’re-going-to-get (e.g., happiness? more peace? rewards in heaven).

I’m certainly not knocking anyone for wondering how to find more peace, happiness or treasure in heaven. (There are plenty of things with more dangerous distraction than treasure in heaven!) But the question remains – why do inadvertent consequences seem to arise when these external blessings become our singular focus?

Is it possible that God is getting shoved out of the equation again?  Think about it: “by applying what we read in our scriptures, multiple blessings can come”;  “if we really want to grow in happiness and knowledge, we need to make sure to pray”; “if you attend the temple, you will receive many blessings.”

Where exactly is God in these statements?

In terms of sheer word-count? Nowhere.

Now, of course, technically we know that God is the one who brings us the blessings, right?…He’s also the owner of the temple, the maker of scripture and our dialogue partner in prayer.

So then why not mention that explicitly in our language? This is more than a question of semantics, since the foregoing research suggests that there are concrete consequences for different ways of approaching, experiencing (and languaging) religion.  Like the Mulekites who forgot God without scriptures, we may also forget God when we talk about His scriptures, His temples, and His prophets as parts of a large ‘blessing generator’ plan:  learn the algorithms, apply the lessons, and get the blessings!

All right – enough already…would you stop murmuring, Laman?  Do you have a better phraseology? And I thought this blog was about mindfulness, anyway?

Well, funny you should ask…because mindfulness does raise some profoundly intriguing possibilities. Most broadly, the eastern framework of contemplative traditions provides a striking alternative to the instrumental, techno-centric, means-end norms of Western culture. What happens when we start talking about prayer, scriptures, temples, prophets and the gospel in another framework and language?

I’d like to find out.  In future blog posts, I look forward to exploring a mindful approach to scriptures, to prayer and to the temple.  Is there a way to experience these in a more profoundly personal way – motivated by relationship, communion and love?  I think so.  But enough for now – I think I’ve murmured enough. (:

No More Awkward Missionary Moments

I used to think that if I cared about something (like the gospel) and really wanted others to appreciate it, I needed to focus my energies in always figuring out ways to bring it up more…and with just the right words and in just the right moments.  Always on the look-out for an ‘opening,’ life was a strategy game – played with the passenger next to me on an airplane flight, with friends or a neighbor down the street.

While leading to an occasional nice moment, one thing always troubled me:  nothing seemed to be sticking.  These hard-won moments of sharing were usually met by something supremely polite:  “Hmmm…how interesting.  Thanks for sharing that.  I appreciate it.  Have a great day.”

Little sense of relevance, or why it matters to them.  And no discernible impact.

When I arrived at the University of Illinois’ psychology doctoral program, one thing was clear – this kind of evangelical posturing would not be well received. So I swallowed hard – and started to listen.

For the next two years, I focused on trying to hear out more deeply the experiences and thoughts of my classmates and professors – feminist, gay, lesbian, progressive.  What followed in my life would change me in ways I wouldn’t have imagined…three examples:

(1) At lunch with a feminist classmate, I asked her to help me understand why she was pro-choice.  She went on to share surprising stories, feelings and experiences that had led to her conviction.  My own beliefs were unchanged – but something else had changed.  For the first time, I really had a sense of why she believed as she did.

(2) Walking across the campus with an atheist friend, I decided to ask her why she came to believe what she did.  For the next hour, I heard of her heart-wrenching abuse at the hands of religious elders as a child – and how it had impacted her feelings about religion.

(3) I was assigned as a home-teacher to a “post-Mormon” law student who refused to meet with any Mormon. With nothing to lose, I penned an e-mail to him one day – asking him if he’d be willing to have lunch and just share his story with me sometime.  I assured him that this wasn’t “step 2 in a 5 step process” – but instead reflected genuine interest in hearing him out.  He e-mailed back within a day:  “I believe what you told me…how does Monday work?”

It all started to click:  ‘hey, there’s another way of doing this whole conversation thing…a way not only less awkward – but also more enjoyable and powerful. The post-Mormon lunch meeting, for instance, turned into one of the most heart-felt explorations of the Spirit that I’ve ever had – and not because I was trying to find-a-way-to-make-sure-I-could-tell-this-guy-about-the-Spirit…quite the contrary.  I had given up any agenda – and just asked him to let me get to know him.  And yet in the natural course of that inquiry, things of the heart came up -from both of us…there was no way around it.

So there you have it:  No burden.  No pressure.  No fear …in exchange about the very things we’re supposedly not supposed to discuss in polite conversation!  When we left the meeting, this man and I had each been taught profoundly – by the experience of being together and by the insights and feelings it confirmed.

But is something like that really worth our time?  LDS scholar Robert Millet has been practicing deep, mutual listening with an evangelical pastor in Salt Lake City, Greg Johnson (see Youtube summary of their work).  Some of his colleagues at BYU have raised critiques of this kind of work – isn’t it somewhat of a waste of time, a distraction from what we should be doing?  Why would we spend time hearing others out so deeply when WE’RE the ones they should be listening to, right?

It’s this attitude, of course, that has contributed to “missionary work” feeling like a turn-off to innumerable neighbors and associates around us.  No one likes a ‘know-it-all’…even if that person happens to be right. And perhaps that’s one reason prophets are teaching us a better way.

  • “Get to know your neighbors. Learn about their families, their work, their views. Get together with them, if they are willing, and do so without being pushy and without any ulterior motives. Friendship should never be offered as a means to an end; it can and should be an end unto itself” (Elder Ballard, October 2001, The Doctrine of Inclusion).
  • “Perhaps even more important than speaking is listening….Be genuine. Reach out sincerely. Ask these friends what matters most to them. What do they cherish, and what do they hold dear? And then listen. If the setting is right you might ask what their fears are, what they yearn for” (Elder Holland, April 2001, Witnesses Unto Me).

I, for one, am sold: sold on the idea that I didn’t have to ‘sell’ ideas anymore…fallen hopelessly in love with a better way.  Over the last 5 years, I’ve enjoyed a hundred different dialogues – in small groups and one-on-one – with neighbors, random friends, and seat mates on the airplane.  I’ve published a research article and a book on the subject with Phil Neisser (State University of New York) – featured on NPR’s This American Life the week before the Obama-Romney vote.

What has all this experience taught me?  That I had it exactly upside down at the beginning:  that when I really want others to appreciate something that I care about, I don’t need to focus my energy in figuring out how to bring up just the right words in just the right moment. 

Gone is that burden.  And gone is the burden of finding exactly the ‘right person’ to share the gospel with.  The right person is the person I happen to be with in that moment:  democrat or republican?  religious or not?  gay or straight?

Doesn’t matter.  Because the good news of redemption is for everyone – especially those that seem particularly lost.  Everywhere I turn, there are precious individuals with rich lives, deep pain and almost without exception, a craving for someone else to understand what they are experiencing.  When you offer them that gift, miracles happen….with two people walking away with insights, uplift and “rejoicing together” (D&C 50:22).

And why is that?  I believe it’s because in that moment of mutual openness, God has reached down and taught both those people – and in ways no one else could.   This is the God, after all, who listens attentively to our words anytime we need.  And it is also this same God who sent His Son to experience all hell…so He could understand us perfectly….so He could save us.

As we seek to help God in His work of salvation, maybe we can take a cue from His own efforts with us:  start with listening.  Real listening…of hearts, experiences, dreams and fears.  Ask questions – and listen some more…pretty soon, there will be something you have to say.  You won’t be able to contain yourself…

The God I worship loves listening, loves questions, and loves dialogue.

C.S. Lewis on Mindfulness

“The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it.  It comes the very moment you wake up each morning.  All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.  And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And so on, all day.  Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first.  But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system:  because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.”  Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 198-199.

The Gospel is not a Fancy Algorithm

The message of the gospel of Jesus is, in its essence, supremely simple.  At the same time, there is a nuance and richness to a fuller understanding that can come to feel fairly complex.  Sometimes, in our attempts to help others navigate and make sense of this larger, deeper picture, we end up using short-hand heuristics and catchy equations.  For instance:

  • Living the Word of Wisdom = Health
  • Obeying Exactly = Happiness
  • Paying Tithing = Financial Security

By drawing mathematical connections between something we do and something we get, these Sunday School algorithms aim, with good intention, at reinforcing motivation towards right conduct.  And sometimes they do just that.

Other times, however, they don’t.

It starts perhaps, when someone exerts personal effort into doing something right, while keeping their eye steadfastly on the promised output.  If this blessed output always followed the right action, of course, then there may be no problem at all.

But it doesn’t.  It simply doesn’t…at least not always.  Everyone can point to a different example…The man who takes good care of his body and is crippled with cancer…The poor widow paying her last money as tithing, without food showing up on her doorstep.  The neighbor woman who earnestly follows Jesus…and lives with chronic depression.

Needless to say, the full complexities of life often fail to fit inside these tidy, two-variable equations.  In the absence of regular, substantial fudging, the algorithms simply don’t map onto reality very well–at least not for many of us.

And that includes Jesus.  Unlike virtually every other individual who ever lived, Jesus never deviated from obeying the Father and “keeping his commandments” (2 Nephi 31:7).  If happiness were proportional to our right actions, then you might expect Jesus would have lived the happiest life ever.  But as all Christians know, the exact opposite happened.  In the last week of His life, Jesus experienced the deepest, most intense and infinitely excruciating pain ever known to man or God.  And while he surely also experienced happiness throughout his life, Isaiah described him generally as a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Other translations convey a “man of suffering” or a “man of pain” who is “familiar with suffering” and “acquainted with deepest grief,” “with disease” and “with sickness” [see World English Bible; Young’s Literal Translation; New Living Translation (2007) New International Version (1984) respectively]

This is not to deny that Christ surely also experienced happiness–especially now.  But it is to say that the algorithms don’t quite capture His Jesus’ mortal experience.  So what about the rest of us?  Aren’t there many people or situations where these equations do apply?  Well, sure…you bet.

Some have misinterpreted this essay as a critique  on the idea that obedience leads to blessings or that God keeps His promises.  Please do not misunderstand.  The issue here is not whether God keeps His promises (I also believe this!)–but rather, how exactly do we language and describe this wonderful fact.   Distilled algorithms are surely only one, unique way of attempting to do so that I’m arguing have some fundamental problems.

To wit, I would propose there is one bigger problem with leaning on bare mathematical models in our teaching of the gospel of Christ–a problem that spans all situations.  Namely, no matter how well or for how many these equations seem to apply, they inevitably create an expectation that what we do is the primary reason we end up receiving health, happiness and blessings overall.  Is that what we want to convey in our teaching?

To be sure, personal effort, desire and passion are wonderful parts of the gospel picture—and deserve to be acknowledged and appreciated.  The problem arises when a sense of automatic correlation develops between our action and a particular outcome:  ‘Going on a mission means you will feel the greatest high of your life…and if you follow the plan of happiness, you will be happy now!’

In each case, our attention is directed towards our own action, and our own obedience…as the primary source of happiness, health and prosperity:  ‘If I just do all these things–with exactness–everything else will turn out.  I can count on that, right?’

If we take away the mentions of God, it all starts to sound a bit like positive psychology sermons or Zig Zigler motivational speeches.  And while God can still remain relevant when we use gospel equations, almost inevitably, they leave Him as more of a middle man–responsible for making sure we get what we want (as long as we do just what He asks).  He becomes the vehicle for our dreams—effectively functioning as a sort of a vending machine:  give him what He wants, and He’ll give us what we want.

And on the opposite end, what about those who aren’t obeying and following Him right now?  Well, it only makes sense from this vantage point that they don’t get the blessings, right?  ‘Sorry, man–you’re on your own.’

And of course, this isn’t His message: “When Jesus heard it, He saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).

What the algorithms miss is neither more nor less than the heart of the gospel—namely, that Jesus made a way possible for people who didn’t do everything right…people who struggled…even for a few who screwed up big time:  “For when we were yet without strength” Paul said, “in due time Christ died for the ungodly…while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 6, 8)

‘But what about all my good works…what about my obedience…isn’t that how I’m going to be happy?’

No.  It’s really not.  Let’s stop pretending here:  “And were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator,” as Mosiah once emphasized, “they must unavoidably remain in bondage until now” (Mosiah 29:19).  “I say unto you,” Benjamin underscored, “that if ye should serve him who has created you….if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).

The good news of Jesus Christ is that He actually came to save us….to save us because on our own, we simply could not do it: “There must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish” said Amulek.  “Yeah, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made” (Alma 34:9)

The good news, then, is that in spite of our own weakness, personal failings and complete incapacity…He can still pull something off!  Like a phenomenal quarterback who miraculously helps his football team come back from a hopeless deficit, Christ comes through for everyone playing on his team: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:13).

[Even that verse, ironically, often gets condensed in our teaching–to say something like simply:  “BE OF GOOD CHEER!”  That little part about him ‘Jesus overcoming the world?’  We can get into it if we need…but in the meanwhile, just remember to be of good cheer!]

Like the algorithms described earlier, these kind of bumper-sticker statements reflect the same fatal flaw:  an absence of God Himself.  While He is acknowledged at some point along the way (“of course, Jesus is the best example of this”…”Jesus makes this possible”), that is often a side-note to a larger discussion focused on how this action relates to this outcome.  In the meanwhile, God is a bystander, a delivery guy, a cheer-leader.

But not a Savior.

This gospel message is not a story problem, and Jesus is no bystander.  Instead, He is the reason for health, the explanation for happiness, and the source of security:  The rock, the light, the life, the way, the truth, the power, the hope of the world.  If that’s true, then let’s talk about Him that way!