On Obedience and Happiness

screenshot for exii postOn a Monday in March I went to lds.org to access my ward directory and noticed the Mormon Message in the top left panel.  It featured this video.

You’ll just have to trust me because I didn’t take a screenshot, but the video was titled “Happiness is the Sum of Obedience” with the subtitle “Do you understand God’s equation for happiness?”  When I returned to the site two days later the title had changed to “Obedience to the Ten Commandments.”

This brings up two questions for me.  First, why was the title changed?  And second, why the original titles were chosen in the first place?

I have no objection to the Mormon Message video, but I very much object to the original title and subtitle.  I think they’re damaging and false, and I left a comment saying so (without using those words).  I don’t have my original comment, but it was close to the following:

Elder Perry’s talk is valuable and the video is beautifully produced.  But I find the title and subtitle problematic for a couple of reasons. First, Elder Perry doesn’t phase things that way, and second they lend themselves to the idea that obedience to God is a transactional process.  As if God dispenses particular blessings in response to obedience like a vending machine would.  The danger with this kind of thinking is that when people are doing their best to follow the commandments and still not receiving desired blessings, it can lead to an unnecessary crisis of faith. 

My comment was posted, then taken down within an hour.  I found it frustrating that a polite but less than gushingly positive comment was removed; it felt like a restaurant with a comment card box that empties straight into the trash.  I recalled how there are no channels for most Church members to communicate with the general leadership of the Church.  I knew I wasn’t entitled to have my comment published (we certainly moderate comments at The Exponent), and that whoever produces social media content has the right to eliminate comments that don’t contribute to the kind of conversation they hope will take place.  But it seemed (and still seems) that the only comments the Church will publish are affirming, and effusively so.  It’s unfortunate (but not surprising) that we can’t have nuanced, earnest conversations about important gospel topics on Church-produced social media.

So imagine my surprise when I returned to that video two days after I commented on it and found that the title had changed to the more accurate but less catchy, “Obedience to the Ten Commandments.”  Did my comment trigger that change?  I’ll never know.  But it gives me a little bit of hope that somewhere in the what I imagine to be large bureaucracy of Church PR, someone cares about truth more than they care about appearing to always get things right.

Confession: I had one of the faith crises I alluded to in my comment.  I’ve written about it here.  My crisis wasn’t exactly about obedience, it was more about praying and fasting with all the faith I could muster and still finding the heavens closed to me.  It was devastating.  And it was more disappointing than it needed to be because if I hadn’t heard so many times in church that God was in control (with no discussion of what that might mean), and that I should have faith in miracles, my expectations would have been different and I would have been less likely to have ended up on the brink of a complete loss of faith.  I still teeter on that edge sometimes.

Was I naive?  Entitled?  Lacking understanding?  Yes.  But I’m not entirely at fault on those counts because this was my religious education, to expect blessings to flow from obedience and faith.  And that is still the kind of talk I hear in my ward every single week.  It’s damaging not only because it sets people up for disappointment, but because it’s simply not true.  God isn’t a shopkeeper and blessings aren’t commodities.  And I think most people understand that, ultimately.  So where does the talk of sums of obedience and equations for happiness come from?  I’ll call it “arithmetic rhetoric,” and I think it could be a misreading of King Benjamin.  Mosiah 2:23-24 says

And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.  And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

The words “paid” and “indebted” certainly sound transactional.  But looking at those verses in the context of the whole address, it’s clear King Benjamin intends to instill humility, not encourage a sense of entitlement.  We’re forever in God’s debt, and obedience does nothing to even the scales.  It seems to me King Benjamin is warning against the “pride cycle” that takes place throughout the Book of Mormon, where a state of blessedness leads people to forget God and oppress their neighbors.

It’s also possible that people use arithmetic rhetoric because they find it comforting.  Believing that obedience brings payment of desired blessings is appealing because it gives a sense of control.  But control is an illusion.  Eccleisastes 9:11-12:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.  For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

As lived experience has taught you and me, bad things happen to the obedient and the good, and to the innocent.  How then to make sense of King Benjamin’s talk of being “paid” with blessings?  It helps to consider that Mormon aphorism from Alma 41:10: “wickedness never was happiness.”  I think this is true not because of external punishments applied by divine intervention, but because the things God commands us to avoid are corrosive to relationships, and as human, social beings, our relationships are a primary source of joy.  Obedience to commandments at the very least saves us from torpedoing our relationships with others and with God, and at best rewards us with peaceful and lasting relationships.  By not stealing or bearing false witness we gain the trust of our peers, by not committing adultery we create a safe space for relationships to flourish, and by worshiping God we avoid wasting our time adoring entities that won’t love us back.  And thus we are “paid.”  The blessing is inherent to the act of obedience.  No external punishments or rewards are required.

Thinking of obedience as generating sums of blessings is wrongheaded, and in my opinion can even become a form of idolatry, of wrong worship.  Ironically, focusing too much on God’s commandments can take the focus away from God, away from a relationship with God that is personal and meaningful.  This was the Pharisee’s pitfall.  Too much focus on obedience stunts our spiritual growth because it takes our attention away from the personal revelation and guidance by the Spirit that is so important to spiritual maturity.

A final kind of use I can think of for arithmetic rhetoric it’s employment as a carrot.  Not trusting that the blessings inherent to right conduct and are sufficient, our leaders promise shinier ones.  They promise happiness.  While there absolutely are blessings from obedience, promising “happiness” is really a very child-like approach, as if there’s a sparkling reward for complying with the rules.  In reality the blessings I enjoy really don’t vary much day by day, nor does my obedience.  But my feelings of happiness do vary.  I don’t feel happy every day, but I’m no less blessed, and usually no less obedient, from one day to another.

Frankly, I don’t believe God has made any promises about happiness.  The scriptures do mention joy, as an underlying and ultimate satisfaction in a life lived in harmony with God.  But “happiness” seems to me a transitory and vacuous substitute for joy, and a modern substitution, too, that has little support in the scriptures.[1]  Perhaps as a child or teenager I would have responded to a promise of obedience summing up to happiness, but as an adult that promise rings false.  And as a parent I’d use that rhetoric very sparingly, if at all.  I think people both young and old have more capacity for understanding complexity than they’re often credited with, and I think given the widespread disillusionment with the Church I observe, we can afford nothing less than to get real about the blessings of obedience.  They are real, but it serves no one to reduce them to integers to be plugged into a non-existent equation.


[1] The word “happiness” appears 26 times in the LDS scriptures – all in the Book of Mormon.  “Joy” appears over 300 times, about half in the Book of Mormon, half in the Bible.  I don’t think the words are quite synonymous, although the dictionaries I consulted are only somewhat helpful in distinguishing them.  I worry that the way we discuss happiness in Church implies being cheerful all the time.  Tracy’s recent post at BCC is a wonderfully thoughtful discussion of this.


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13 Responses

  1. Joanna says:

    Amen! And thank you for the link to Tracy’s post! It reminded me of the article in the Ensign a while ago – ‘Beyond the bubblegum machine’.


    I refer to it often. Now I will refer to this. 🙂

  2. SLSDM says:

    So appreciated this post. I thought the same things when I saw that box on the lds.org site. Thank you for taking the time to articulating what I felt as well, and for putting it out there for others to ponder upon. It’s a needed pondering.

  3. madsenmel says:

    This was something I struggled with on my mission. We were promised that if we were perfectly obedient, we’d have baptisms. I served in a very low – baptizing European mission, so of course all of the missionaries wanted to increase their obedience to achieve conversions. But, I argued, what about a person’s free agency? What if I’m perfectly obedient and there is nobody in this city ready to accept the gospel? Will God take away someone’s free agency to reward me? He has promised that He wouldnt ever do that…It just turned into a really good way for missionaries to beat themselves up for minor infractions (after all, nobody’s perfect) and an excuse for why we didn’t have converts (well, Elder So and So broke this and that rule, that’s why he’s not baptizing anyone). I preferred to think of happiness/blessings/baptisms not being contingent on our obedience, but that our obedience would make us better people and closer to Heavenly Father, and those were pretty good blessings right there. Unfortunately there were few who thought as I did…

  4. Caroline says:

    Fantastic post, Emily. And I LOVE your theological reflections. Any chance that you could submit this to the ExII magazine for the women’s theology feature?

  5. Spunky says:

    I love this, Emily. I am with you. When my husband and I were going through infertility treatments, and accepted failure after 4 IVF surgeries, 3 surrogacy contracts and hundreds of adoption applications, I found that I had to separate my relationship with Christ and my relationship with the church in order to stay sane. People at church kept promising things of God if I did all I could; and when I was still childless, I felt like they judged me as unworthy and dirty. But I still felt at peace– not happy, but at peace in my relationship with Christ. By separating the vending machine (church, for me) from my relationship with Christ, I felt like I could go on.

    The theology you use in this perfectly reflects my understanding of this doctrine, in a way that is better than I have ever read before. I personally believe you did enact the change on the lds.org site. Thank you.

  6. On one hand, I am pleased that Church HQ appears to have heard your thoughtful critique and acted on it. On the other, I am disappointed that, by deleting the comment, they seem to be exhibiting pride–they don’t want people to know that everyone doesn’t gush about everything they do, and even when they are willing to make adjustments based on thoughtful critique, they hide the source of the idea. This is consistent with a pattern I have noted lately that the Church appears to be ashamed of being responsive to its members, especially female ones.

    • Ziff says:

      I totally agree, April. It seems to me to fit with the desire to keep up the facade of infallibility. “We have no need of your input, you mere members. If anything needs to be done, God will let us know.”

  7. Jenny says:

    Great post! I think you are absolutely right about this being a stumbling block for many people. I also had a faith crisis over this when I was in college, and even now that I’v e had some lived experience and seen that it doesn’t really work that way, I still have to fight the guilt and worry that comes from thinking I’ll be punished and lose my reward for not being obedient. I think this message is deeply ingrained in us through our religious teaching. Thank you for speaking out about it and for possibly creating a little bit of change.

  8. Rachel says:

    Emily U. you are one of my favorite theologians. I read something today in Sam Brown’s book “First Principles” that was along the same lines that you wrote here. I’ll try to find the quote soon. It is also lovely.

  9. Ziff says:

    Wonderful post, Emily! I love your takedown of “arithmetic rhetoric,” which is a perfect term for it. I think I was exposed to this type of thinking most often in seminary, where I had multiple teachers who loved to tell us to write in our scriptures that this or that was clearly outlining a formula for this or that blessing. I think you’re spot on in saying this is a kind of idolatry. I wonder if it isn’t also related to just world thinking. It’s been a while since I took psychology courses, but if I remember right, there’s some evidence that suggests that we (people in general) believe in a just world–the good get rewarded; the bad get punished–in order to comfort ourselves in the face of the very real and big injustices: the suffering of good people, the random goods and bads that befall people regardless of what they’ve done.

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