“We Lived After the Manner of Happiness” – Reflections on Missionary Work, Happiness, and Contribution

This is a talk I gave at a missionary reunion in October 2013. I re-post it here because I think it offers an interesting counterpoint to my talk on grace from last week, where I argued that “if our discipleship is causing us overwhelming stress, anxiety, fatigue, and/or burnout, it’s safe to assume that something is amiss.” By contrast, in this talk I argue that “Suffering and hardship . . . are major components of a meaningful life,” going hand-in-hand with discipleship.

In the spring of 1842, just two years before his martyrdom, Joseph Smith wrote that “happiness is the object and design of our existence.”[i] I find this to be a curious statement coming from a man who spent the majority of his life in poverty, driven from city to city by violent mobs, often defeated but always persevering. I must conclude that “happiness” for Joseph meant something quite different than the way our modern culture tends to define it. This begs the question: how do we define happiness?

A recent study from The Journal of Positive Psychology found that there are significant differences between living a happy life and a meaningful one. In this study, happiness is defined as “[a state of life] in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. . . . Happiness . . . is about feeling good. . . . People who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. . . . The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.”[ii] Moreover, the researchers found that the pursuit of this brand of happiness was also correlated with “a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life.”[iii]

The meaningful life, by contrast, is described as one in which “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self . . . . Leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver’ . . . [though it also leads one to] worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety . . . than happy people.”[iv] Suffering and hardship, as it turns out, are major components of a meaningful life.

A study of the scriptures and modern church history seems to corroborate this distinction between happiness and meaning. With few exceptions, God’s people appear to be in a near constant state of tribulation. And yet, the great men and women of the scriptures and our own pioneer heritage seem to find a great sense of purpose and joy in their devotion to God—in living their religion. The evidence leads me to conclude that the meaning of “happiness” in the scriptures, and to the early Saints, is probably closer to what the researchers in this study define as “meaningfulness”—a manner of living not defined by a lack of hardship, but by a fullness of life.

What does this have to do with lessons learned on the mission? I believe that if we pursue the gospel path with an expectation of happiness as defined by 21st-century standards—a life of ease, comfort, low stress, and material abundance—we are likely to be disappointed. That said, however, I firmly believe that we, like our spiritual ancestors in the scriptures, can obtain genuine joy by walking the gospel path—joy that is rooted in the meaningful approach to life. I believe this lesson is learned most clearly on the mission. I doubt any returned missionary would describe their mission experience in terms of being easy, comfortable, or stress free. No missionary escapes without some measure of suffering—our own personal Gethsemanes. And yet, would many returned missionaries deny that those were some of the happiest years, if not “the best two years,” of their lives? The lesson here—the lesson I think God wants all missionaries to learn—is that the gospel path is less about making us feel “at ease in Zion” and more about challenging, stretching, and refining us into godlike beings.[v] In other words, “[fulfilling] the measure of [our] creation”— learning and growing line upon line through the full spectrum of life experience—has more to do with our happiness than a life that rejects and avoids troublesome experiences.[vi] As Mother Eve wisely noted, “it is better for us to pass through sorrow” than to live in (or pursue) an Edenic state of existence all our life.[vii] President Uchtdorf described this beautifully in a recent First Presidency Message:

“I am sure at one time or another we have all thought it would be nice to take up residence in a land filled only with days of picture-perfect seasons and avoid the unpleasant times in between. But this is not possible. Nor is it desirable. As I look over my own life, it is apparent that many of the times of greatest growth have come to me while passing through stormy seasons.”[viii]

I add my testimony to President Uchtdorf’s in stating that it was the challenging, often exhausting nature of the mission that contributed most directly to my growth. I have rarely felt as alive as I did while I served as a missionary; for it was there that I learned most keenly the pain and the joy of pursuing the meaningful life. Another question we might ask at this point is, if “men are that they might have joy”, where is joy to be found in the meaningful life—where is the fruit, described by Alma and Lehi as “sweet above all that is sweet” and “desirable to make one happy”?[ix] Surely life is more than suffering? Here, too, I believe the mission teaches us the answer quite powerfully.

Remember that a meaningful life is one that transcends the self to focus on the needs of others.[x] I believe it is on a mission that we learn most profoundly the fact that people and relationships are the priorities of our existence, and the sources of our eternal joy. As President Monson related in October 2008, “What is most important almost always involves the people around us.”[xi] Where better to partake of the fruit described as “the love of God” than in genuine relationships with our fellowman and with our God?[xii]

If I were to ask the average returned missionary to describe what brought them the most happiness as a missionary, I believe that they would ultimately come back to the relationships they forged: their relationship with God, companions, the overall mission community, members, investigators, new converts, and the wonderful people they went out of their way to talk with every day. These relationships are still the most precious thing I have taken from my mission. Yes, the mission was also full of rejection, discouragement, and some depression, but for me the opportunity to build those relationships made everything else worth it.

It has now been over four years since returning home from my mission in Sendai, Japan, and I still find myself weekly thinking about how I might recapture that meaningful life I once lived as a missionary. This brings me to another question: How can we help ‘hasten the work’ as returned missionaries?

I only offer one suggestion here; something I think we did instinctively as missionaries, but often neglect to do as “average” members: take initiative, be anxiously engaged, and be a contributor to the church—not merely a consumer of it. One of my personal heroes within Mormonism, Eugene England, articulated both the challenge and the blessing of being an active contributor rather than a passive consumer of religion:

“In the life of the true Church, as in a good marriage, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve – or possibly even associate with – and thus there are opportunities to learn to love unconditionally (which, after all, is the most important thing to learn in the gospel). There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be ‘active’: To have a ‘calling’ and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other people’s ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures. To attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people’s sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response. To be subject to leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blindness, even unrighteous dominion – and then to be called to a leadership position and find that we, too, with all the best intentions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous. . . . If we constantly ask, ‘What has the Church done for me?’ we will not think to ask the much more important question, ‘What am I doing with the opportunities for service and self-challenge with which the Church provides me?’ If we constantly approach the Church as consumers, we will never partake of its sweet and filling fruit. Only if we can lose our lives there will we find ourselves.”[xiii]

Everything I learned about how to be an active contributor and the joy associated therewith I learned on my mission. To share one anecdote, when Elder Smith and I “whitewashed” into the city of Morioka in the fall of 2008, it didn’t take long for me to determine that Morioka was probably the most spiritually deficient branch I had ever served in. Relationships between many members were toxic; in fact, I recall one “fast and testimony” meeting where a formerly estranged member of the branch bore testimony against the other branch members, condemning them for partaking of the sacrament unworthily. Enthusiasm for missionary work was low, reinforced by the branch mission leader who jilted us once and who was generally pessimistic during correlation meetings. Furthermore, the teaching pool was non-existent despite Morioka being a relatively large area. And yet, anyone who knows me well knows that Morioka was my favorite area to serve in.

Despite the discouraging problems we faced, as my companions and I took initiative to actively contribute to and improve the area, I came to love the city and the people. By the time we left the area in the spring of 2009, there were noticeable signs of improvement; indeed, I could see specific ways in which God had used us as instruments to further his work there. The months of service had so moved me that, for the first and last time on my mission, I shed tears as our bus departed. My life was forever changed by my choice to contribute rather than be discouraged with the status quo.

I bring up these experiences not to criticize the members of the Morioka Branch, who I have a great love for, but rather to emphasize that our ability to find happiness and meaning at church should not be dependent on the current state of the congregation. I wonder how many of us find ourselves in a Morioka-like situation in our current church community? Perhaps the circumstances of our congregation are not as ideal as we would hope. Perhaps our personal testimony is not as luminous as it once was when we served as a missionary. If that is the case, I believe we can both “hasten the work” and make our church experience more meaningful by contributing—by diving in.

There is a quote by Herman Melville, author of the classic American novel Moby Dick, which one of my brothers shared with me early in my mission and I have always remembered: “I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down . . . five miles or more.”[xiv] Let us dive into our church communities, as we once did as missionaries, and work to improve the programs, build the people, and foster genuine relationships. In the process of wrestling with the challenges therein, we will build the Kingdom of God, and we will find meaning. I know this to be true, because that was my experience, time and time again, as a missionary in Sendai, Japan.

[i] Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon, April 11, 1842, in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Rev. ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 537-539.

[ii] Esfahani Smith, E. (2013, January 13). There’s More to Life Than Being Happy. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] 2 Nephi 28:21, 24

[vi] D&C 88:17-20

[vii] LDS Temple Endowment

[viii] Uchtdorf, D. (2013, September). Saints for All Seasons. Retrieved from http://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/09/saints-for-all-seasons?lang=eng

[ix] 2 Nephi 2:25; Alma 32:42; 1 Nephi 8:10

[x] Esfahani Smith, E. (2013, January 13). There’s More to Life Than Being Happy. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/

[xi] Monson, T. (2008, October). Finding Joy in the Journey. Retrieved from http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/10/finding-joy-in-the-journey?lang=eng

[xii] 1 Nephi 11:8-11, 21-23

[xiii] England, E. (1986). Why The Church Is As True As The Gospel. Sunstone, 10(10), 30-36.

[xiv] Herman Melville to Evert A. Duyckinck, March 3, 1849, in Correspondence, vol. 14, The Writings of Herman Melville: The Northwestern-Newberry Edition, ed. Harrison Hayford and others (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1968-), 121.

“When Have I Done Enough?” – Embracing Transformative Grace

At the beginning of November 2007 I was fledgling, bright-eyed missionary, just arrived at my first area in the southern outskirts of Niigata, Japan. Just days after getting acclimated to the area, I was whisked away to my first zone conference where we were treated to a special visit from the Asia North Area President at the time, Elder David Evans. I wish I could say I remember much of what was said at that meeting—let alone at the vast number of meetings I have attended since then—but one moment still pierces my memory to this day. During the last segment of the conference, Elder Evans opened up the time for missionaries to ask questions and, driven by my young missionary zeal, I asked the one question that most desperately concerned me: “How can we know we are doing enough when there is always room for improvement?” Elder Evans noted the question along with the others on a large white board and proceeded to answer each in turn.

As fate would have it, just as Elder Evans finished answering the question preceding mine, he signaled that we had run out of time. My question was left unanswered, and it is one that I have been thinking deeply about ever since. My thoughts today are primarily directed to those of you who may be wrestling with the same question—those of you who never quite feel you are doing enough, overwhelmed by how often you fail to meet the expectations you set for yourself, and the expectations you believe God holds over you.

Cheap Grace

Though I don’t think I realized it at the time, my question is a restatement of a much older dilemma: how are we to understand the necessity of good works in light of God’s infinite grace? In fact, my question to Elder Evans could easily have been rephrased as follows: “How do I know when I’ve qualified for God’s grace when there are always more works I could perform?”

In truth, I never found a satisfactory answer to this question during my time as a missionary. Though I loved my mission dearly, and consider it to be one of the seminal periods of my life, even a cursory review of my mission journals reveals a frequently despondent soul who never felt like he was measuring up to expectations. Mission mantras like “Obedience is the price” reinforced the idea that we earned our success as missionaries, and that blessings were predicated on our ability to perform. Though most of us worked extremely hard and saw varying levels of success along the way, guilt over never “doing enough” was the byproduct of this paradigm—at least for me.

This mindset of works-based righteousness is, unfortunately, not exclusive to overzealous missionaries. Indeed, I suspect it is something that plagues many, if not most, lay members of the church. And yet, we Mormons are often quick to reinforce our support of this works-based-righteousness ethic, usually at the expense of grace. Indeed, what Mormon has not heard James’ famous maxim, “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone”[i] quoted in quick defense whenever the subject of salvation by grace is proposed? I speculate that Mormons are generally allergic to grace-based salvation because we fear the consequences of what Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: “[T]he preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, . . . grace without discipleship, [and] grace without the cross[.]”[ii] The logical extreme of cheap grace is perhaps best described by Nephi, paraphrasing Isaiah: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.”[iii] In conjunction with fears about cheap grace, and perhaps as an outgrowth of our predominantly conservative culture, some of us may abhor the thought that an “unwise and slothful servant”[iv] be given any free handouts—whether in this life or the next.

Legalism

The opposite extreme of cheap grace is salvation through pious works, more technically known as “legalism”; and though it bears equally unfavorable fruits, in my estimation legalism is a much more common pitfall for Mormons than cheap grace. Perhaps most insidious, a devout legalist may unconsciously begin to see God as more of an exacting Lawyer than a compassionate Father; one that works for us primarily on a quid pro quo basis. Here is a popular verse interpreted through a legalist lens (which, as it turns out, isn’t much of a departure from how we usually read the original): “I, the Lord, am bound when ye scratch my back; but when ye do not scratch my back, ye have no promise that I will scratch thine.”[v] This legalist belief that our blessings, especially our salvation, are earned by our pious works distorts the gospel into an elaborate system of carrots and sticks. Indeed, the widespread acceptance of this philosophy among Mormons is most apparent in the way we commonly teach the commandments, where the promised carrots, or blessings, receive greater emphasis than the ethical or moral significance behind them.

This paradigm of legalism inevitably gives birth to what might be dubbed “The Checklist Saint”—the believer who, in an effort to attain the carrots God has promised to bestow upon those worthy, compartmentalizes his or her religious living into a series of checklist actions which must be completed daily or weekly in order to curry God’s favor. This is what happens when we come to believe that the kingdom of God, like our 21st century workplaces, functions like a meritocracy, where the hardest working saints get the choicest blessings, and the slackers get the bottom of the barrel (if they’re even allowed to be considered part of the kingdom at all).

Unfortunately for legalists, one pundit has noted, accurately I think, that “[a] God of grace will endlessly frustrate those who’ve built their lives upon an economy of merit.”[vi] The burnout we are very likely to experience from living the life of a “Checklist Saint” reflects our fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who boldly declared that those who would “take [His] yoke upon [them] . . . will find rest for [their] souls . . . for [His] yoke is easy, and [His] burden is light.”[vii] While I do not believe Christ meant that the life of discipleship would be easy, per se, I certainly believe He intended discipleship to be more than an overbearing burden that we “endure” to the end for the sake of a heavenly reward, which is how I observe some members approach discipleship. I strongly believe that if our discipleship is causing us overwhelming stress, anxiety, fatigue, and/or burnout, it’s safe to assume that something is amiss. The likely cause is that we do not understand how grace works (no pun intended).

Gratitude & Christlike Character

We’ve now explored the extremes of grace and works: on one hand, grace without works leads to “cheap grace,” a close neighbor of hedonism, and on the other, works without grace leads to legalism. Neither is desirable for our spiritual and mental health, and neither reflects the gospel. Is there a middle ground between the two?

Mormon scholar Adam Miller has suggested that in order to find a balance between grace and works, we must first acknowledge that grace was the plan from the beginning: “[We are sometimes fooled into thinking that] God’s original plan was for us to bootstrap ourselves into holiness by way of the law and then, when this didn’t quite pan out, God offered his grace—but only the bare minimum—to make good the difference and boost us into righteousness. This is exactly backwards. Grace is not God’s backup plan. Jesus is not plan B. God’s boundless grace comes first and sin is what follows. Grace is not God’s response to sin. Sin is our embarrassed, impoverished, rebellious rejection of God’s original grace.”[viii]

In recent years, Mormon author and educator Brad Wilcox has popularized a metaphor, often referred to as “The Parable of the Piano Lessons,”[ix] which elucidates how grace and works might be balanced in way that is quite helpful and easy to understand. Just as a child who practices the piano does not in any way compensate their parents who pay for the piano lessons, so to do our works not in any way pay for our salvation. Christ pays the whole balance; we are saved by “the righteousness of [our] Redeemer,”[x] the “merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.”[xi] As eloquently phrased recently by President Uchtdorf, “Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God.”[xii] A child who practices the piano in light of their parent’s generosity shows two important things: (1) their gratitude for the parents’ sacrifice, and (2) their desire to be a better piano player. This is the proper place of works in the gospel: a response to grace received, not a petition for that grace. Like Adam Miller said, grace comes first, and our response—sin or righteousness—is what follows.

Transformative Grace

To some in the audience, the idea that we in no way pay for salvation may cause some consternation. What about saving ordinances? What about covenants? What about the commandments? Why bother with them if we’re already saved? To me, that’s a bit like a freshman college student asking, “Why should I bother doing anything if I’ve already been accepted into college?” If we believe education is primarily about grades, acceptance letters, and degrees, we’re missing the point—education is, first and foremost, about genuine learning and character development. So, too, with our spiritual development. The most important moment of our spiritual journey may well be when we cease to see our works as important for some heavenly GPA, but rather as a reflection of our desire to follow Christ and imitate his virtues. Salvation, as defined as being granted access to heaven, is no more the end goal of our existence than getting into college is the point of college.

Building on Wilcox’s parable, I believe we perform the works and rituals of salvation to show our gratitude for God’s gift of salvation, and to show our desire to grow in Christlike character, thus becoming like our Heavenly Father. When we sin, we are not putting our salvation in jeopardy; we are distancing ourselves from our godlike potential. When we repent, we are not paying for debts; we are deliberately choosing to put off the old man of sin and put on the new life in Christ.[xiii] When we keep the commandments or enter into covenants, we are not merely attaining blessings or avoiding punishments; we are expressing gratitude for all that God has done for us, showing our desire to live a life of holiness.

When the need for grace and works is understood in proper balance, it is powerfully transformative. In fact, Paul—perhaps the greatest exponent of grace—believed that saints who accepted God’s grace in faith would naturally produce good works—not out of compulsion or fear, but out of genuine desire. As explained by Pauline scholar E.P. Sanders, “Paul held that faith in Christ was the sole requirement for membership in the group of those who would be saved. . . . [That said, he believed] Christians should live morally blameless lives. . . . Paul thought that correct behavior was the inevitable consequence of becoming one person with Christ: a member of Christ’s body lived accordingly, naturally producing the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ . . . [W]e must conclude that he and his converts thought that their membership in the body of Christ really changed them.”[xiv]

“Done Enough”?

I now return full circle to the original question I posed as a young, naive, overambitious missionary: “How can we know we are doing enough when there is always room for improvement?” The question is, as it turns out, fundamentally flawed, because we can never “do enough,” and there is, indeed, always room for improvement. As Joseph Smith noted in one of his last major public addresses, “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them.”[xv] How important it is for us to recognize that it will be “a great while after [we] have passed through the veil” before we become as God and Christ—perhaps millions of years by our reckoning of time. How much more kind and patient we ought to be with ourselves and each other, regardless of our multitude of sins and wherever we may be on the spectrum of progression.

God has provided his gospel not as legal contract detailing how we are expected to save ourselves, but rather as a hopeful guide on how to become like Christ. I hope each of us, particularly those of us who are habitually overwhelmed by church duties, programs, and expectations, may find peace in this thought, and cease from trying to “run faster than [we have] strength.”[xvi] Indeed, let us remember the hopeful words of Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”[xvii]

[i] James 2:17 (KJV)

[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 44-45

[iii] 2 Nephi 28:7 (cf. Isaiah 22:13)

[iv] D&C 58:26

[v] D&C 82:10

[vi] A.J. Swoboda (mrajswoboda). September 6, 2015. Tweet.

[vii] Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV)

[viii] Adam Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan, pp. 3-4

[ix] Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient.” Brigham Young University. July 12, 2011.

[x] 2 Nephi 2:3

[xi] 2 Nephi 2:8

[xii] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace.” LDS General Conference. April 5, 2015.

[xiii] Romans 6:3-6 (KJV)

[xiv] E.P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 81, 84

[xv] Joseph Smith, “King Follett Discourse.” April 7, 1844.

[xvi] Mosiah 4:27

[xvii] Romans 8:35, 37-39 (NRSV)