Monday, October 31, 2011

The Lord's Ways

This is a transcript of a talk I gave in church on Sunday, October 30, 2011.

My thoughts this morning are on our Heavenly parents and their relationship to us as well as our relationship to each other.  The springboard I’ll use here is this month’s theme in Isaiah chapter 55.  I want to read the scripture in its full context to see what Isaiah was saying here.  Chapter 55 is a beautiful invitation to return to the Lord.  It’s a message of repentance and the assurance of forgiveness.  This invitation is given to all: “Ho, every one that thirstest, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David… Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:1,3,6-9)

We are asked to consider our ways and thoughts.  This is an invitation for introspection, to compare our ways and our thoughts to God’s.  The scriptures say that we are created in the image of our Heavenly parents.  We are similar to them in our nature.  But in behavior, in practice, in custom, our ways and our thoughts, we are, collectively, very different from them, even radically different.  The ways of the Lord our higher than ours.  The thoughts of the Lord are higher than ours.  But the invitation is to forsake our ways and our thoughts.  To do what?  To adopt the ways and thoughts of the Lord.

So then what are the ways and the thoughts of the Lord?  This is important because the way we understand and view God will influence our values and our aspirations.  It is an easy thing to fall into theological idolatry and to create a god fashioned in our own image, to project our own ways and thoughts onto a god of our own vain imagination rather than to conform our ways and thoughts to those of the true and living God.  In the introductory section of the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord said the people “seek not the Lord to establish righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16)  Babylon, in the scriptures always stands in contrast to Zion.  The people of God are to follow His law and His ways while the world follows after the ways of Babylon.

There is some low-hanging fruit here that we as Latter-day Saints can easily recognize as ways of the world that contradict the ways of the Lord: sexual immorality, pornography, drug use, alcohol and so forth.  These are ways of Babylon that encroach upon us and we should not conform our ways to them.  In addition to these obvious sinful actions there are ways of being and thinking that alienate us from God.   The invitation is for the wicked to forsake his ways and thoughts, not only to stop doing wicked things.  This transformation has more to do with who we are than what we do.  Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: “…the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.” [1]

We are invited to transform ourselves, our ways and our thoughts to conform to those of God.  How shall we know the ways of our Heavenly parents?  Jesus said to his disciples: “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.  Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.  Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip?  He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?  Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.  Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.” (John 14:7-11)  We know the ways and thoughts of God primarily through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Biblical scholar Marcus Borg said of Jesus: “He is the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion—of what God is like and of what God is most passionate about.  He shows us the heart of God.” [2]

It is through Jesus then that we can come to understand the character, the way and thoughts of God.  Jesus is the way to become like God, or as he said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but my me.” (John 14:6)  Jesus is the example that we should emulate and imitate.  Jesus asked the Nephites—“What manner of men ought ye to be?  Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Nephi 27:27).  We find the path in Jesus’ life and teachings. 

If we dare to study Jesus at face value we find that the Kingdom of God he preaches is a world radically different from our own.  When we understand the radical difference of the Kingdom of God and the way its imminence threatens our own customs and ways of thinking it is easier to see how this preacher from Nazareth would cause so many in positions of authority to clamor for his swift execution and crucifixion.  In Jesus we can see the incarnation of the premise “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”  Jesus stands out in history because he was so fundamentally, strikingly different.  It’s very important not to domesticate his teachings to make them more palatable to our own ways and thoughts.  His teachings are challenging and they should be challenging.  Jesus’ teachings flip the entire way of the world upside-down.  “The last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16)  “Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)  “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.”  It’s all backwards, flipped around, upside-down, a complete one-eighty.  If we adopt the way of Jesus we are transformed, entirely forsaking our ways and thoughts for his, for God’s.

One of the first things to understand about the Lord is that he does not see people in the same way we do.  We place importance on very superficial things like physical attractiveness, prestige and wealth.  But the Lord sees people on a much deeper level.  The scriptures say: “the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) If we were to see people in the way God sees them we would treat them much differently than we treat them now.  But first we have to change our world-view.  Our way is to alienate and devalue certain groups of people.  We see light skin and dark skin, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat and we make value judgments, reasons to exclude, to demean.  But in the eyes of God these divisions and barriers brake down.  It’s not that this diversity no longer exists, but that all are equally invited to come unto him, “black and white, bond and free, male and female… all are alike unto God…” (2 Nephi 26:33) It is only after changing our way of seeing and thinking about others, those who we exclude from our circle, that we can truly begin to adopt the ways of the Lord.

A certain lawyer asked Jesus, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus asked him to answer his own question based on the written law, which says: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”  This was the correct answer and Jesus told him to go and do this and he would live.  But the lawyer then asked the perennially relevant question: “who is my neighbor?”  This is the critical question if the law is to be meaningful in any way.  To love your neighbor is not an abstract principle.  You can only love an actual person, a living, breathing individual.  So who are those people that we are required to love?  We have to know who they are in order to follow this law.  So Jesus told him a story.  A man traveled to Jericho and fell among thieves.  He was beaten nearly to death and stripped of his clothing.  A Levite and a priest both passed him on the road but walked on by.  To Jesus’ Jewish audience the Levite and priest were the obvious neighbors; they were of the same religion and well respected members of their society.  But the implication here was that for the priest or the Levite to touch a dead person would have made them ritually unclean, not permanently, but it would have been an inconvenience to them in their religious duties, too great a risk.  But a Samaritan, found the man and had compassion on him, dressed his wounds, gave him lodging, and paid the innkeeper for all expenses on his behalf.  The Samaritans were not nice to the Jews and course the Jews were not nice to them.  They were enemies.  The Samaritans wouldn’t even receive Jesus when he traveled among them, with a few exceptions.  To these people, a “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron, impossibility.  But Jesus set up the story in this way on purpose and asked the lawyer “which one was a neighbor to him that fell among thieves?”  And the obvious answer was that the Samaritan was neighbor to him. (Luke 10:25-37)

This is sometimes called a Parable of Reversal—it flips things around and forces you to consider things in a way completely opposite of the way you normally do.  This is the way Jesus helps us to see that his ways and his thoughts are higher than ours.  We are not inclined to love all people so indiscriminately.  But Jesus said, “love your enemies”.  “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?” (Matthew 5:44-45) Can this kind of universal love for all people really work in our world today?

The way we show love for God is by showing love to our neighbors.  When we show compassion to our neighbors it is as though we have loved the Lord himself.  “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me… Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)  Who are “the least”?  I think we can answer that question by looking within ourselves and asking whom we devalue most.  The least are the forgotten ones, or worse, the despised and rejected ones.  Some of them are the homeless sleeping on the street corners, the families in generational poverty.  Or maybe they are the migrant workers loitering on the street corners hoping to find a day’s labor.  They are even the ones in prison, the drug traffickers, the drunk-drivers, the thieves, the murderers, the sex-offenders, people who have done harm to others, the lowest of the low.  Our way is to look upon these is to judge them and, in the case of those in prison, to seek retribution and punishment, the harsher the better.  But the ways of the Lord are not our ways.  Jesus said that we are to look upon such and see His face, the image of God in the lowest and most depraved of all humanity.  The message of the parable is that we will be judged by the way we treat these people, not by the way we treat our friends.  In the eyes of God, the very things we that do to these people we have effectively done to the Lord himself.  We must not forget that Jesus himself was despised and rejected of men; he descended below all things.  What did this experience teach him?  It gave the Son of God the perspective to understand the state of the least among us and the impulse to lift them up and redeem them, no matter how horrible their past.  In the mind of the Lord, no child of God is undeserving of love and compassion.  This is the way God sees.

The Lord expects a great deal from us but He is also infinitely merciful.  If only we could be as merciful to each other as he is to us.  It is possible to return to the Lord and become a new creature through his Atonement.  When we enter into the way and the thoughts of God we are transformed and we can become a transforming force in the lives of others to bring about the Kingdom of God on the earth.  Then our thoughts will be His thoughts and our ways will be His ways.


1.  Dallin H. Oaks. The Challenge to Become. October 2000
2.  Marcus Borg. The Heart of Christianity. p. 81

Friday, October 7, 2011

Korihor and Social Darwinism

The Book of Mormon contains the teachings of three great heretics or Anti-Christs. The most famous of these is probably Korihor, the Anti-Christ who confronted the prophet Alma. Here is a quick recap of the story. Korihor taught that there was no need for Atonement, there was no God and that whatever a man did was no crime. He debated Alma and demanded a sign of God’s existence. As a sign from God he was struck dumb. When Korihor was struck dumb he admitted that he had always known there was a God and asked to be healed, but was denied this request. He ended his life pitifully, trampled down among a merciless crowd.

The Book of Mormon presumably includes these stories and teachings so that we may recognize these same false doctrines today. It serves as a warning. So it is important to understand exactly what false doctrine is being taught. Obviously, Korihor taught that there was no God and we usually focus on this in Sunday school. But this is not the only thing he taught. There are many atheists who are also humanists, care about others and live moral lives. But Korihor was not this kind of atheist. His teachings encouraged an immoral way of living. He had five basic teachings. (Alma 30:17)

1. “There could be no atonement made for the sins of men”
2. “Every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature”
3. “Every man prospered according to his genius”
4. “Every man conquered according to his strength”
5. “Whatsoever a man did was no crime”

In Korihor’s own view we don’t need God. We don’t need atonement for our sins because nothing we do is sinful. The supreme authority is one’s self. The only thing we have to do is climb our way to the top using our abilities, intelligence and strength.

This reminds me of a more modern philosophy called Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is a philosophy that justifies and exalts the pursuit of wealth without regard to compassion or responsibility for others on the grounds that the cutthroat business world promotes the “survival of the fittest.” This philosophy is often placed historically in the late nineteenth century but similar ideas are alive and well today. The English philosopher Herbert Spencer saw natural selection, or in his words “survival of the fittest”, working in nature and concluded that this was not only the way things work in nature, but the way they should work in all areas of life, including economics.

In Spencer’s view, predatory instincts served to "exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in the way, with the same sternness that they exterminate beasts of prey and herds of useless animals." Spencer became wildly popular among the elite industrial tycoons of America. People like to think that their way of life is moral and correct and Social Darwinism not only justified harsh business practices, it encouraged and glorified them. In response to the sympathetic feelings we might have toward those less fortunate Spencer tried to put our minds at ease:

"Those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many 'in shallows and in miseries,' are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskillfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artisan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life and death... The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better."

Social Darwinism today takes form in some of these commonly-held beliefs:

“If you work hard you can make it. Poor people just haven’t put forth the effort to succeed.”

“If the poor would just get up and work then they wouldn’t be poor anymore.”

“If we help the poor it will just encourage them to be lazy.”

“I worked hard for what I have. Why should I help anyone else? No one helped me.”

“This is a harsh, cruel world and some people just aren’t going to be as successful. There’s nothing you can do about it so you just have to accept it.”

“We shouldn’t create a society of dependents.”

These ideas cover a broad range of economic and political issues that I won’t try to cover here. I have my own doubts about the efficacy of government action to solve these problems. But my main concern is the philosophy of Social Darwinism and what religion has to say about it.

Korihor was very concerned with possessions. He accused the priests of taking property from the working people and living off of them. This was a false accusation but we can see that Korihor believed that the church was keeping people from enjoying their own possessions. He said that the church was keeping the people under a yoke of bondage “that they durst no look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges. Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own…” (Alma 30:27-28)

Korihor’s doctrine was very individualistic and meritocratic. In his view, every man prospered according to his own genius and conquered according to his own strength. A man owed nothing to God or to any other person. This was an extreme expression of ingratitude. In the Bible, the Lord, warned the people not to forget what God had done for them.

“Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God… And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 8:10-18)

Everything that we have we owe to God. This includes our intelligence and our strength that allows us to prosper and to conquer. And God does not desire that those who have greater ability and strength than others trample the less-fortunate under their feet. Rather God desires that we impart of our substance one to another. It is true that this is a harsh, cruel world but that doesn’t mean that we should perpetuate that condition deliberately. If you are blessed with great business acumen or technical ability or any number of abilities that have enabled you to succeed the Lord expects that these abilities will be used to serve. Our talents and gifts are not to be hoarded and buried in the earth but should be used to bless the lives of others.

What of the philosophy that we shouldn’t help the poor because it will make them lazy and create a society of dependents? King Benjamin addressed this in the Book of Mormon. “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent.” (Mosiah 4:17-18) It is not for us to judge others, ever. Maybe the beggar would just buy a beer with some change. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give him food directly. What’s even better is to work to address the social and economic conditions that led to the beggar being where he is in the first place. We have a culture in the workplace and in management that can be more employee-focused. We don’t have to depress wages and salaries to the lowest possible level to increase profits. That is the culture of Social Darwinism, not Christianity.

The essence of Korihor’s teaching was selfishness. Korihor replaced worship of God with worship of self. Korihor taught that we should use our strength, intelligence and any other advantages to conquer and to prosper over others. The Lord asks us to use our gifts and talents to benefit and bless others.