Thursday, August 19, 2010

Neither Do I Condemn Thee

I would like to talk about condemnation.  A nice, light subject, I know.  It certainly gives the Gospel some teeth to think of all the horrible things that are going to happen to all the people who have been mean to us in our lives.  It gives a kind of satisfaction when you're driving on a crowded freeway and somebody honks their horn for a really long time, cuts you off without using their blinker, or won’t let you into their lane.  You can think, I bet that guy will feel really sorry when he is burning in Hell.  Life isn’t fair.  It’s like watching your favorite basketball team in the finals only to see repeated cheap shots by the other team and the referees never call them on it.  But some day the cheaters are going to get theirs.  Hell-fire and damnation are a kind of vindication.

We want so much for things to be fair.  Good behavior should be rewarded with pleasure and bad behavior should be rewarded with pain.  It is pleasing to think that eventually all of our patience and sustained righteousness will be rewarded.  But what if bad behavior didn’t lead to endless pain and torment?  It would almost take away the pleasure of our own reward.  To me an apt comparison is working really hard to get a nice car, or something really slick.  It takes a long time to save up to get it.  Then I get the new car and I am really happy with it.  But I found out that some slacker was able to get the same thing for half the price.  I would get sick to my stomach.  My car is still just as good but knowing someone else didn’t have to sacrifice as much for it ruins the reward for me.

There is a parable with a very similar story.  The master of the house hires laborers in the morning and agreed to pay them a denarius for the day.  He also went out the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour.  Finally he hired laborers in the eleventh hour.  When the day was done he paid them all the same.  “But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more… Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.  But he answered one of them and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?” (Matthew 20:1-16)

What an aggravating story!  I would be really ticked off if this had happened to me.  The guys who came in the eleventh hour had just been sitting around all day and got the same benefits.  This is a really challenging parable.  It is supposed to be.  If it doesn’t challenge your sensibilities then read it again.

How can God be so gracious?  It is irritating.  Jonah felt this way.  He went to the people of Ninevah and told them that if they didn’t repent then God would destroy them.  And then something remarkable happened—they repented, so God spared them.  But Jonah was furious (Jonah 3-4).  In Mormonism it’s even worse, because people can repent even after death and be redeemed (Doctrine and Covenants 76:74).  What kind of injustice is this?  So all of these people who have done horrible things can be redeemed?  Salvation can really be a very upsetting idea, not because I can be saved but because other people can be saved who I don’t want to be.

My point here is to illustrate the expansiveness of the Atonement.  The love of God is greater than we understand, not because we are not capable of understanding, but because we are unwilling to understand it.  This really requires a transformation of character and an extinction of pride.  It is in our nature to not like certain people.  And if the people we don’t like get rewarded, then Heaven is not the place for us.  How could we stand it?

The truth is that God accepts everyone who accepts him.  The only people who are not saved are those who refuse to be.  “They are their own judges, whether to do good or do evil” (Alma 41:7).  And God doesn’t refuse anyone, even the people we think he will refuse.  Sometimes we think we know exactly who is going to be saved and who will not be.  That is such a truncated understanding of the Atonement.   “And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 27:33).  He even remembers the heathens.  So even the robbers, and drug dealers, and prostitutes are invited to come to God?  What an outrageous idea.  This is so much bigger and encompassing than we can imagine.

A final story.  This may be one of the most important stories in scripture.  The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been found in adultery.  They asked him what he thought should be done to her.  “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”  Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger as if he didn’t hear them.  They continued pressuring him and he said “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  Then he continued to write on the ground.  This is the first lesson: none of us are called upon to condemn anyone.  We have no right to do so.  It is not for us to say who is going to Hell and who deserves punishment.  After Jesus said this, they all understood that they could not condemn her and left them both alone.

Jesus then said to her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?  She said, No man, Lord.  And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:1-11).

This is the second lesson.  It’s a lesson for us as sinners, the accused.  We are all in this situation at some point.  Think of what this would be like.  At one moment you are at the point of execution.  And not just any execution, but an excruciating execution by stoning.  Imagine what that would be like.  It would be slow and the only thing around you in every direction would be disdain and hate.  Then, suddenly everyone is gone and you realize that it is not the end.  The only one left before you is God, the ultimate authority and judge, the only one whose judgment really matters.  What will God say?  Will he spare you and be merciful?  Then he says.  “Where are all those who accused you and hated you?  Have they all gone away?  Does no man condemn thee?  Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Wrestle with God

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy. 
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
From C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
One of the possible pitfalls of religious life is claiming to know too much too soon.  After going to Sunday school for several years we may think we have it all figured out.  We have all the doctrines down and some of us even have nice creeds to recite that lay it all out there.  We know exactly what God is like and we know exactly what he wants and how he wants up to behave.  God seems to be very simple and easy.

From my own encounters I have found the reality of God to be quite different.  God is challenging and sometimes terrifying.  The reality of God is often something that we don’t wish to accept and tend to shy away from.  It was like this with the Israelites when Moses came down from Sinai.  His face shined with the glory of God and the people were afraid of him. He even had to cover his face with a veil when he spoke to them (Exodus 34:29-35).  They could not bear to look upon the full glory of God and preferred to cover it up.  How often do we domesticate God in such a way?

The domesticated god is the god fashioned in man’s preferred image.  It has been said that if you find that your god happens to agree with you on everything than you may worship a god of your own making.  Encountering the true and living God entails opening yourself to the reality around you and exposing yourself to the dangers of new visions, thoughts and ideas.  It is very, very likely that you may have gotten something wrong and will find that God will lead you in a direction that makes you uncomfortable.  To come into the presence of God is to be transformed and transformation is as much a process of destruction as it is construction.

There are two occasions in scripture where an encounter with God is described as a wrestle.  In the longer account it is a full out wrestling match that lasts all night long.  The story in the Book of Mormon doesn’t actually describe a wrestling match but it was likely a very similar experience. 

In the Book of Mormon, Enos begins his story by saying “I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.”  Enos was hunting wild beasts in the forests and as he was doing this the words of his father came to his mind and sunk deeply into his heart.  “My soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul.”  He prayed like this all day and well into the night (Enos 1:1-5)

In the Bible, Jacob wrestled with a man all night long.  It is a very strange story but also very interesting.  If you imagine this happening literally it is totally bizarre.  Prior to this, Jacob was preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau, for the first time in years.  Then out of nowhere, we get this story: “And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”  No explanation of who this guy is, he’s just there all of a sudden.  So dawn is coming and this man isn’t able to beat Jacob so he hits him in the hip and says “let me go”.  Then Jacob says “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”  What?  I don’t ever remember hearing that in a WWF match.  So this man blesses Jacob and even renames him Israel.  Afterword, Jacob calls the place Peniel saying “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”  Turns out, Jacob’s opponent was no ordinary man but God himself.  The name Peniel is Hebrew for the “face of God” (Genesis 32:24-32).

My guess is that the actual events that took place in these two stories were very similar but that the account in Genesis is much more symbolic.  Enos sought redemption and Jacob sought a blessing.  But for both the wrestling match with God was a quite a struggle though also quite rewarding.

We get the idea from the prophets that if you step into the ring with God you should prepare to be surprised and amazed.  When Moses first met Yahweh he was left limp and almost lifeless and said “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10).  This is what seeing God is like.  When you see God you see everything else differently.

The wrestle with God is a process of dramatic transformation and it is both an event and a process.  Centering more in God and Christ is a kind of rebirth.  “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  This is a gospel of change.  All things are become new.  As creatures of habit and custom, change can be uncomfortable but it is good.  Like Aslan, God can be overwhelming, surprising and fearsome, but God is good.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Who Is God?

It is general practice to begin a study of systematic theology with the question of God.  To start, the most basic question to be answered can be put “Who is God?”  Usually, Christian theologians have stuck with the tried-and-true basic attributes.  For example, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, impassible, and practically perfect in every way (did I just describe Mary Poppins?).   Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with these statements, I’m just not sure they are so important.  So if God is omnipotent, could he make a burrito so hot that even he couldn’t eat it?  Than one even tripped up Ned Flanders.  Please excuse my playful blasphemy.  But I think there is something more fundamental, more scriptural, and more important to understand about God.

The strongest definitive statement I can think of in all scripture is “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  To me this seems like a very simple, concise and powerful definition of God.  It could even be written as an equation: God = Love.  Blake Ostler is the only philosopher or theologian I know of who has begun a discussion of God from this premise [1].  And I think this is the best place to start for two reasons:

1.  It is accurate.
2.  It is essential.

First, it is accurate.  If you want to learn of God and understand God than learn to love.  Pray to be filled with this love “that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him” (Moroni 7 48).  There is a lot that can be interpreted from this scripture.  Is God literally love?  Is this any more than an abstraction?  I understand it to mean that God is loving, so loving that everything God is and does manifests pure love.  This is very comforting.  Proper understanding of grace and Atonement can be found in the context of a God of love.

Second, it is essential.  Worshipping God means to love God and to love our fellow man.  These are the first and greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-39).  This directly impacts one’s life.  Worshipping a God of love is essential.  I believe it is essential because to follow any god that is not love is to go after a false god.   To the extent that a religion teaches hate and division, that religion is false.  The more religion approaches the pure love of Christ, the truer that religion is to the one true God.

Christ himself revealed God in his own life (John 14:6-11).  There is a curious passage of scripture that is often quoted but not often noticed for its strangeness.  Jesus said: “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).  A new commandment?  Isn’t that a basic principle of the Gospel?  Was this something completely revolutionary?  Well, it sort of was and still is actually.  It’s not that this had never been mentioned before, but the message has always been a hard sell.  We have done pretty well with the God of Requirements throughout history, but we have had a harder time following the God of Love.  Slaughter a lamb, cut it up in pieces, burn some parts of it, eat other parts, no problem.  No beer, no smoking, no tattoos, no crazy hair-dos, no blue shirts in church, got it.  But love one another?  That is a new commandment, again and again, because we always forget it.  But Jesus revealed to us the true God, the God of Love.

Who is God?  God is love.  This is the most basic and fundamental attribute of God to comprehend.  It is this attribute that governs all other divine attributes.  Furthermore, it is this attribute that we, God’s children, are to take upon ourselves just as we take on the name of Christ.  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  This is really hard.  It’s a good thing we have a perfectly loving Heavenly Father to help us along the way.

[1] See Volume Two of Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Though: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God.  The reference is from the first chapter.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hi, I'm Todd

So the LDS church has these profiles of its members up on  I submitted a profile and I thought it would be good to post the contents and a link here.

Hi, I'm Todd

I'm working to solve the world's energy needs and help the environment. I'm a disciple of Christ and I'm a Mormon.

About Me

I am a chemical engineer working to make fuel from algae. I enjoy science, history, philosophy, and music. I also like to spend time outdoors camping or hiking. 

Why I am a Mormon

I am a follower of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. When I was baptized into the Church I made a covenant to take the name of Christ upon me. I love having both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Both of these scriptures deepen my faith in Christ.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can we come to know our Father in Heaven?

We read in the Bible that we come to know our Father in Heaven through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me". As we read of Jesus in the scriptures we can learn of the things he did and follow him. This will lead us unto the Father. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples to pray unto the Father. As we pray to our Father in Heaven we can come closer to him.

Are Mormons Christians?

 Yes. There are millions of Christians throughout the world and we all have some different ideas and practices that we follow. But what unifies us as Christians is our faith in Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and that he is our Savior and Redeemer. It is through the Atonement of Christ that all mankind may be saved and resurrected. In fact, this is the most important teaching of our faith.

Personal Stories

What blessings have come through your faith in Jesus Christ?

There is a great power and peace that comes with faith in Jesus Christ. We have all had times of feeling guilty, inadequate, depressed, anxious, trapped, and without hope. But the message of the Gospel is that God loves us. He loves us so much that he sent his Son Jesus Christ that we might have everlasting life. Jesus is on our side and he wants us to succeed. He wants us to be happy. My faith in Jesus Christ has made brought me peace and happiness. I am no longer burdened with guilt or despair. I feel his strength lifting me up.

How I live my faith

My faith is centered in Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is my Savior. I enjoy participating in a community of faith when I go to church. There we share our thoughts and feelings as well as our faith with each other. We grow together in Christ. Centering my life and family in Jesus Christ brings me closer to him and to my family.