“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. (:

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!