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!