The Gate and the Path

May 21, 2012

The Lord said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate … strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14). There are a number of truths taught in these two seemingly simple verses, one of which is that there is first a gate and then a way (or a path), both of which are narrow.

Nephi expounds on the gate and the path in 2 Nephi 31-32, where, after discussing the Savior’s baptism, he says, “the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water”. This is the gate through which each of us must path to obtain eternal life. It is interesting to note that this requirement of repentance and baptism is the same for all, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, well-known or unknown. Even the Lord of all obeyed this requirement to fulfill all righteousness. This single point of entry then is a common funnel through which our lives must all flow, regardless of the difference of our paths beforehand.

After baptism of water, comes the gift of the Holy Ghost, as Nephi describes, “then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost;” (2 Nephi 31:13). In the next chapter, Nephi laments that his people still wonder what they must do after entering in by the way, saying: “if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.” (2 Nephi 32:5).

Thus, after baptism, the Holy Ghost is to our be our guide, telling us everything that we should do. It is my belief that this process of seeking and following the direction of the Holy Ghost–enduring to the end–is not some passive, “hang on and try to stay put” kind of enduring, but rather an active process of seeking the will of the Lord and following it. Because the Holy Ghost ministers to us individually, we are each given exactly what we personally, and specifically, need to do. The individual nature of this guidance makes each of our paths through life different. Certainly there are general commandments and exhortations that apply to all, yet we must seek and follow the direction of God for our lives.

That fact that the path is different for each of us does not make it less narrow or less difficult. It does not mean that we have no accountability. On the contrary, we are directly accountable to God who knows the talents and abilities with which He has endowed us. In this light, there is no room for thinking we have do enough, because it would be great by some general standard, if our own abilities should have warranted more. “For of him unto whom much is given, much is required” (Doc. & Cov. 82:3, see also the Parable of the Talents: Matthew 25:14-30).

Thus, while the gate of baptism is the same for all, the path after it is different for each of us, despite that fact that the process of following the path is the same. What a remarkable plan that requires consistency yet provides for individuality. Truly we “must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if [we] shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.”

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Faith and Sacrifice

May 16, 2012

“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated–And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (Doc. & Cov. 130:20-21)

If Faith is a gift from God, then it is my belief that the law upon which it is predicated is the Law of Sacrifice.

Faith is not developed by “hoping” very badly that something is true, or even intellectually evaluating it to incredible depth, but rather, by putting it to the test–to “experiment” upon it, in Alma’s words (Alma 32:27). In almost all instances, this trial of faith requires sacrificing something we want now for something we want more later. Nearly every commandment we receive from the Lord (and most principles of successful life outside of spiritual matters) , can be seen in this light–instant gratification versus lasting, but delayed, happiness.

In this regard, it fits perfectly with the role of agency in the plan of salvation. While we may study a principle at length, it is not until we actually act upon it that we develop true faith in it. As Moroni wrote, “ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” (Ether 12:6). Similarly, the Savior taught, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17). By actually acting on the principle, we learn more about it than we ever could through study alone, and in so doing we develop true faith in the principle and its power.

As I have read books, such as the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, I am amazed at the amount of miracles evidenced in his life. He clearly had great faith developed through a life of incredible sacrifice. It is my belief that his faith and the miracles in his life, were a direct result of the fact that he sacrificed so much and so freely.

In our lives today, if we ever find ourselves with less faith or seeing fewer miracles than those of Parley’s generation, we might ask ourselves if we are truly willing to sacrifice as they did. Mormon said that if miracles have ceased it is because of lack of faith (see Moroni 7:37), and if faith is lacking, I propose that there is an unwillingness to sacrifice.

Ultimately, in order to become more like our Savior and receive His promised blessings, we must be willing to sacrifice all, even as He sacrificed more than we can comprehend for us. Through this level of sacrifice we develop the faith to move mountains, and without it, how can we expect to receive the blessings promised to those like Abraham who did demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice all? As the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation;” (Lectures on Faith).

A Personal Relationship

April 12, 2012

A walk through a crowded downtown street can often encounter you with someone on the corner asking, “do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” While the expected (and often given) response is a quick yes or no with some attitude for or against religion as the rationale, a deeper reflection of the topic is insightful.

Indeed, developing a personal relationship with the Savior is perhaps the most important quest we can undertake and underlies the whole purpose of why we are here.

In the scriptures we read that we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, see also Mormon 9:27), which often sparks a discussion of faith versus works, but is it not a command for both? Surely we must work to develop the faith necessary for salvation. And, is not this quest of working out our salvation before the Lord exactly the process of truly developing a relationship with Him?

One of the most beautiful parts, and sometimes the most difficult for people to accept, is that the status of our personal relationship with the Lord is known only to Him and the individual. Certainly, there are fruits of the Spirit that follow the one that is living in harmony with the gospel, but the relationship itself is by very definition, personal–no amount of posturing before man can produce it.

Thus, while we may marvel at a “spiritual giant” or judge harshly him who has fallen out of God’s favor, it is not given to us to judge or condemn others (see Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37). In this light, we ought not to condemn those whose visible sins are different than our own (See The Merciful Obtain Mercy by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, April 2012). And, on the same token, while another may have achieved great standing among the views of men, we should remember the words of Jesus that “he that is the greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) and “he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.” (Luke 9:48). In addition, not only can we not properly judge others standing before God, each of us have a different measuring stick, “For of him unto whom much is given much is required;” (Doc. & Cov. 82:3; see also the Parable of the Talents: Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:12-28).

Despite our inability to gauge others’ personal relationships with Christ, we can and should be well aware of our own. The development of this relationship is of paramount importance in our quest for Eternal Life, for “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3). Thus, we are constantly admonished to “seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever.” (Ether 12:41).

I was introduced to Pascal’s Wager in a math class in college in a discussion of probability theory.  Basically, he comes to this: either God exists or He doesn’t.  If it cannot be proven that God does not exist, one has to at least admit that a possibility of infinite happiness is at risk.  The infinite expected value of believing, therefore, always outweighs the expected value of not believing.

Obviously many have argued against this position, and Pascal himself said that this conclusion does not represent true faith, but a reason to pursue it.  I would agree that a wager of this type is not sufficient to base one’s faith and life around.  However, he brings up an interesting point, to which I wish to add some concepts from machine learning.

In artificial intelligence, it is common to assign a “utility function” to decisions or states.  Basically, a way of measuring how good or bad it is relative to other decisions.  This can be money in the case of gambling, pieces in checkers, or time in keeping a pole balanced.  The goal is to create process that will learn to maximize it’s utility over the long haul.

One’s lifetime utility function could be described in terms of the happiness that individual enjoys throughout their life.  Achieving high utility for a short period of time that will bring with it greater amounts of low values afterward is certainly a losing proposition.  It is akin to sacrificing the queen in chess in taking a few pawns, which temporarily leaves the player ahead, but is costly in the long term.  One who abuses drugs will gain a short term high, but will certainly be faced with a greater amount of unhappiness afterward.

In the realm of Pascal’s wager, one could include in this the happiness that can be experienced after this life.  However, I would argue that even setting this aside, the act of believing, following, and becoming more like the Lord will also lead toward a maximum lifetime utility during one’s mortal life.

A true follower of Christ will learn patience, self-mastery, and selflessness.  He will experience love, service, and inner peace.  He will avoid debt, substance abuse, adultery, and pornography–all of which ultimately lead to unhappiness.

While some might argue that the sacrifice of time or money required by religion is an unneccesary burden in acheiving happiness, I would suggest that these directly lead to many of the desirable outcomes above.  Sacrificing one’s time to learn the value of service and to lift another will bring joy.  And many financial planners will speak to the monetary value of learning to give to charity, as opposed to hoarding all of one’s money.

So while the ultimate goal of many religious people is eternal salvation in the world to come, true religion prepares the righteous follower to become someone better now.  And this process steers the believer away from those things that bring pain, and toward those that bring peace, joy, and happiness.

Sounds like a win-win-win to me =).

Word of Wisdom Wins Again

October 14, 2008

Drink a little bit of wine each day, it’s good for your heart.  We’ve all heard this a lot over the past several years, and I’ve thought about it recently as it has been suggested by a prominent ad on the back of my Money magazine the last few months.

Shortly after this new healthy wine craze was established, I heard many point out that drinking grape juice would have the same benefits, and that the alcohol really had nothing to do with it.

Now a new study may suggest that while drinking a little bit of wine may be good for the heart, alcohol, even in small doses has adverse effects on the brain.

http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/diet.fitness/10/14/healthmag.alcohol.brain.shrinkage/index.html?iref=mpstoryview

Once again, it usually takes the scientific comunity a little while to catch up to what Latter-day Saints have been told for almost two hundred years.  So again it appears, siding with the Lord and the Word of Wisdom seems to be your best bet.

I was sent this email and while I don’t vouch for the accuracy of the numbers / percentages, it does appear to sound just about right.

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

* The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.

# The fifth would pay $1.
# The sixth would pay $3
# The seventh would pay $7.
# The eighth would pay $12.
# The ninth would pay $18.
# The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.
So, that’s what they decided to do. The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve. ‘Since you are all such good customers, he said, ‘I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20. Drinks for the ten now cost just $80..

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men – the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his ‘fair share?’ They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer. So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay.

And so:

* The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).

# The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
# The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
# The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
# The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
# The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).
Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

‘I only got a dollar out of the $20′, declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,’ but he got $10!’

‘Yeah, that’s right’, exclaimed the fifth man. ‘I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than I!’

‘That’s true!!’ shouted the seventh man. ‘Why should he get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!’

‘Wait a minute,’ yelled the first four men in unison. ‘We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!’

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.

David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics, University of Georgia

Much has been said about the separation of Church and State, but I what I would like to see is a separation of State from Entertainment.

I love politics, the whole process is fascinating to me.  I constantly watch cable news networks and keep up on news websites and blogs.  But when I choose to do something else, I don’t want to see it.

This fact has come up a few times recently with the election heating up and no where was it more blatant than at the primetime Emmy’s a week or so ago.  Almost every remark made some slam against McCain or some reference to Obama.  I respect a lot of the people involved as actors and writers, and wanted to see who was going to receive what, but the political rants became so overwhelming and annoying that I had to turn it off.

It was not the fact that they were promoting a candidate that I don’t support, but just the whole topic of politics, that bothered me.  When I tune in to watch a football game, the food network, or a sitcom, I don’t want to hear your political agenda.  That’s not why I’m there.  If I want it I’ll ask.