Michael N. Anderson, “Bringing Back Relief to Righteousness,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 135–143.
Bringing Back Relief to Righteousness
Michael N. Anderson
“So, it is complicated,” my investigator told me. He was explaining the effects of tithing and strict integrity on his financial decisions. I had taught him both of these gospel principles as a missionary. By these words, however, I could tell the difficulty of living these gospel principles was settling in on him. Yet the same investigator had also expressed how much the gospel had buoyed him up while in despair. The gospel had given him hope and comfort. Now he was saying that the gospel details he discovered within the message were making at least one aspect of his life complicated.
Investigators are not the only ones who sometimes find such details discouraging. Members may actually encounter this problem more. After all, one inactive member expressed her view to me that more discoveries of demanding details come with more involvement in the Church. Such details may include home teaching, avoiding R rated and other inappropriate movies, not dating until sixteen, profanity, vulgarity, magnifying a Church calling, Saturday night stake conference, and modesty.
Clearly, members of the Church are susceptible to the disillusionment surrounding some details of the gospel. Through my personal experiences, interactions, and applications of scripture, I have been able to dispel much of the disillusionment in my own life. The resolution of the problem, however, is still a work in progress. Understanding my resolution revolves around three questions concerning obedience to gospel details: (1) why people do not follow them, (2) why people should follow them, and (3) how best to follow them.
The differing approaches to the details of the gospel can create varying Latter-day Saint lifestyles. When presented with a detail of the gospel, many see a fork in the road of spirituality. Critics of turning right say the road leads to being wrapped up in all of the duties, details, and directions of the gospel. “It will leave you extremely stressed out and overwhelmed,” they say. Critics of turning left say the road leads to a laid-back, laissez faire approach to living the gospel. “The big commandments are never broken before the little ones,” they say.
I have seen both outcomes in myself and in others. Those that turn right may be, in part, responsible for Utah’s leading the nation in use of antidepressants. Here in Happy Valley, some are having anxiety issues. For example, just the other day I was driving with some friends. I was being cautious and doing my best to be responsible. I pulled up to the light and waited for it to turn green. I looked up, and the light was red. I made one comment to my friend sitting next to me and looked at the light again. It had only been, at most, six seconds since I took my eyes off the light. Nevertheless, the light had turned green. As I was putting the car into gear, I looked across the intersection and saw a circus scene. A middle-aged man in a minivan was frantically waving his arms and clapping at me as if to rush me along. The light had barely turned green. Was the few-second wait so long that he had to lose his temper? I did not get mad, but after we passed the car, we all burst out laughing. He was a stress case.
I turned to my friend sitting next to me and asked what could have made that man snap. We talked about it for a minute, and I speculated he probably has kids, a family, a job, a car pool, a calling with the deacons, an assistant coach position on the soccer team, and, to top it off, a restraining set of guidelines that allows little room for self-gratification.
Is it any wonder that some take the easy road? In addition, some may see the guidelines of the gospel as shoving a bottle cap on a bubbling soda bottle. In life there are shakes rattles and rolls, and the pressure on the bottle cap grows and grows. Over time, the bottle gets one too many shakes and the cap bursts off. With the explosion comes regret, remorse, and embarrassment. It is no wonder that many decide not to fight the rapids for righteousness’ sake. They decide to ease back on the commandments to release some pressure and make life less complicated.
Following the left fork of our hypothetical highway also has undesirable consequences. An acquaintance of mine had been doing light gambling and going to casinos before President Gordon B. Hinckley’s denouncement of such practices in April 2005. When he heard the counsel, he decided it was not for him. Perhaps he believed that he could get by spiritually while only indulging on this small issue. He was wrong. He has since led a life with complete disregard for even the most serious commandments.
Is there a middle road? Must a Latter-day Saint choose between being a distressed disciple or a passionate sinner? Or must a Church member always choose between slacking and stressing? What is the alternative?
I especially struggled with these conflicting ideas on my mission. I greatly desired to be a good missionary. My worst fear was to be labeled disobedient or lazy, so I went the extra mile not to be labeled as such. For some of my companions, I went too far. I would grow anxious if we sat still for too long while we were out knocking doors. One rule stated that we were supposed to stay only an hour and a half during the Chilean lunchtime with the members. I would begin to have a knot in my throat at the hour and twenty-nine minute mark if it appeared that we were not leaving anytime soon. In the morning, we were supposed to be out the door on the hour. So, at five after the hour, I would begin to follow my companion around the apartment to let him know that I was waiting on him. In addition, I worried that if I so much as smiled at a girl, I was flirting.
One particular companion of mine thought I was crazy. He told me that I needed to relax. “Relax?” I thought. “I am a missionary. This is no time to relax. You need to be more worried. You’re not worried enough, and nothing seems to bother you. For you, only a few rules are a big deal to break.” I don’t remember saying these words, but this is how I felt. One time in our apartment, he told me that the pressure and stress that I was putting on myself did not come from God. I knew that being too negative was not a divine trait, but I felt I had to make up for my companion’s carelessness. I felt that any struggles we had teaching or getting our investigators to progress were unimportant to him. No failure seemed to bother him. I thought, “How can a missionary go through his mission not worrying much if he had success or was a good missionary?” Nevertheless, I began to listen to his counsel and try to lighten up. After all, I was the junior companion by many months.
These feelings and sequences happened several times on my mission and with at least two of my companions. When I followed their advice, I felt I was slacking off. When I followed my own advice, I felt I was stressing. It seemed to me that I could only be one of two things: a stresser or a slacker. Now I realize that both stressing and slacking off are wrong. As I matured as a missionary and an individual, I realized it is possible to be aware of the details without becoming a nervous wreck. This understanding came slowly by watching and observing individuals who did it skillfully.
My mission president was an anomaly to me. I had never met anyone like him. He was of German descent and grew up in a Chilean society. He possessed the best attributes of both cultures. He was not a stresser, and he was definitely not a slacker. The man could not be rushed. He could not be upset. He was steady and had incredible composure. Watching and observing him led me to realize that there was another alternative. One could be completely diligent, dutiful, and detail oriented while, at the same time, delightful, happy, and encouraging. True, my mission president had faults, but his focus was on joyfully serving the Lord.
Mission presidents have an extensive and complex schedule. Yet, being in an interview with him, no one could have perceived his intense itinerary. He acted as if time were no issue. Despite how tired he must have been, he once spent time eating birthday cake in the missionaries’ apartment before the elders went to bed. The elder whose birthday it was invited him partly as a joke, realizing that a mission president has other things to do. Nevertheless, he came and showed his love and sincere care for the whole apartment. Another time, a missionary had to call the president in the middle of the night. The elder was surprised to hear a quick and alert answer. The president was up and working. He joked with the missionary before answering his question.
What caused this amazing mixture of calmness, cheer, and character? I learned that it was the Atonement of Jesus Christ. My mission president used the power of Christ’s sacrifice in copious amounts, like drinking water on a desert hike. I concluded that this is the only way one could operate at his level. His use of the Lord’s grace continues to be an example to me.
My mission president taught me how to use the Atonement better. Of course, I had a great testimony of the Atonement before I arrived in Chile. I had done things that I was ashamed of and knew that God had forgiven me in a personal way. In fact, much of my fuel for following rules came because I knew He had forgiven me. My Father had dealt with me in a very precise way. How could I not be precise in keeping His commandments? I knew God had been in the details for me; I wanted to be in the details for Him.
This aspect of my testimony of the Atonement continues to flourish. It is responsible for my doing my best to follow the commandments today. My mission president, however, taught me that there is no need to add stress to spirituality. He was a catalyst for many of my conclusions concerning the process of bringing relief back to righteousness. The following conclusions have helped me handle the details of the gospel:
1. Obey out of gratitude. “If ye love me, keep my commandments“ (John 14:15). Although this verse is one of the most repeated and referenced, I did not understand its implications for many years. Nearly all those that believe in God have some sort of testimony that He loves them. I have heard proud sinners acknowledge His hand in their lives. They are sure that He has blessed them; therefore, all believers are capable of at least some degree of gratitude, a form of love. If there is love toward God, there is reason to keep the commandments. First, He commands it in the verse above. Second, should Latter-day Saints not do their best to follow all of the Lord’s commandments seeing how He is doing His best to bless them? President J. Reuben Clark Jr. expressed, “I believe that in his justice and mercy [God] will give us the maximum reward for our acts, give us all that he can give, and in the reverse, I believe that he will impose upon us the minimum penalty which it is possible for him to impose.” What a contrast to those who seem themselves entitled to the greatest blessings because of their smallest effort of obedience.
For example, Latter-day Saints may not see reason for following a detail such as not purchasing goods on Sunday. “In a few hours, it will be Monday anyway,” they complain. “What is the difference of a single day?” Surely, however, the Lord has given each of us blessings that were well timed and precise. A single day mattered so much to us then. Even if the blessing had been sent through FedEx, it would not have arrived in time. The Lord delivered, right when we needed it. An attempt at reciprocating His exactness is a key reason for following the details of the commandments. This reason also creates a much more authentic obedience. It contrasts with the attempts of some that try to keep up with the religiosity of the Joneses.
2. Work day by day, task by task. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself” (Matthew 6:34). The first metaphor that I heard my mission president use I was sure came out of a nursery rhyme. It was so simple that, until hearing it a few times, I was not sure what he meant. “An ant can eat an elephant,” he would say. Often he would follow that by saying, “Maybe not in a day or a week, but, yes, it can be done.”
The main idea revolves around acknowledging that everything we want done in one day cannot be done in one day. All that can be done today should be done. What cannot be done today must be worked on tomorrow. Thus, what is finished today will determine what work we do tomorrow. Hence, there is no reason for fretting about tomorrow’s work when it is still today. The worry for the future so often impedes what is done in the present. Going back to the metaphor, if the ant worries that he will not ever finish the elephant, he may become discouraged and stop eating. Similarly, overwhelmed Church members may deviate from their duties and grow discouraged. If we are convinced of our duty to follow the details, we must not become distraught if perfection does not come in a single day.
3. Make the responsibility become the relief. “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. / I awoke and saw that life was duty. / I acted, and behold—/ Duty was joy.” This concept may seem impossible. With real faith in the Atonement, however, this ideal can become reality.
People dream that one day they will be able to make a living by doing what they love. Many who have this dream may be confined to an occupation they find undesirable. Such individuals can change the situation either by changing their job or by finding ways to enjoy their job. Those choosing to follow Christ have only one option: make the journey of discipleship enjoyable. Christ will not change the path’s requirements. Disciples must change their desires. Otherwise, the journey will be tiresome and fruitless.
The people of King Benjamin had a desire-changing experience when they applied the atoning blood of Christ. Mosiah 5:2 reads, “The Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent . . . has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” I have tested this principle. For example, I had never found journal writing to be enticing. The prophets and apostles, nonetheless, continue to encourage the Saints to write. I find that when I pray and repent of my negativity, I gain a positive disposition toward journal writing. I have more desire to do it.
In this way, the process of repentance and application of the Atonement can make dreaded gospel chores—perhaps home teaching or paying fast offerings—turn into a cherished opportunity. Such practices will uplift us and bring fulfillment if we have used the Atonement to change our desires.
4. Remember to not let the means get in the way of the end. “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. . . . Mary hath chosen that good part” (Luke 10:41–42). In this New Testament story, Jesus went to visit Mary and Martha. When Jesus came into the home, Mary went and sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to Him. Martha, on the other hand, was busy serving her guests. She was bothered that Mary left her to go sit with Jesus. Jesus then explained to Martha that she had missed the point. Mary was catering to Jesus more than Martha, despite her rushing around the house.
Similarly, Latter-day Saints may often let Church and personal obligations get in the way of pleasing Jesus. For example, some Latter-day Saints let their magnified callings become so extravagant that the purpose of the calling is missed. Elder M. Russell Ballard recently taught, “The instruction to magnify our callings is not a command to embellish and complicate them. To innovate does not necessarily mean to expand; very often it means to simplify.”
As a college student, I have benefited from keeping in mind the ultimate reason for my studies: to worship God and serve my fellow man. When I have this purpose in perspective, I do not stress as much. I also feel more justified in asking the Lord for help. In addition, I do not let my education get in the way of my purpose. My education is the means, not the end.
These few guidelines are not exhaustive. They have helped me, however, to find a measure of Christ-centered calmness. I have a testimony that Heavenly Father does not desire that His children have anxiety in their apprenticeship. The Lord gives an assuring promise that our quest to follow the commandments can be an enjoyable journey: “But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23). The peace found in righteousness will not always be because of our circumstances. Nonetheless, peace can still flourish despite our circumstances. Yes, even a gospel of sacrifice can be a gospel of smiles.
 CBS News, “Unhappy in Utah,” CBS Evening News, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/06/03/eveningnews/main510918.shtml; see also Tad Walch, “Why High Antidepressant Use in Utah?” Deseret Morning News, July 21, 2006, http://www.deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,640196840,00.html.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Gambling,” Ensign, May 2005, 58.
 As quoted by Neal A. Maxwell, “‘Free to Choose’? (2 Nephi 2:27),” Brigham Young University 2003–2004 Speeches, 4.
 Rabindranath Tagore, as quoted by Thomas S. Monson, “The Sacred Call of Service,” Ensign, May 2005, 54.
 M. Russell Ballard, “O Be Wise,” Ensign, November 2006, 18–19.