On Thoughts, Actions, Reactions, and Self-Control
While the idea of controlling (or coercing or manipulating) other people is clearly at odds with the principle of agency, the teachings of the scriptures, and the example of our Heavenly Father, controlling our own selves is very much called for—but, oh, so difficult. It’s one extremely difficult thing to control our own actions. It’s even more difficult to control our thoughts.
So often, thoughts come into our head, which are negative or harmful—sometimes even consciously unwanted and unwelcome. Sometimes unwanted thoughts come when we’re trying to fall asleep or return to sleep. Sometimes we think negative things about ourselves or are excessively or unfairly critical of ourselves. Sometimes we fill in the blanks of what we don’t know about other people’s actions by ascribing negative motives to them. Sometimes we feel anxious and our heads get full of all manner of unreal “what if” scenarios that make the anxiety even worse. Sometimes we consider sinning in some way (“It won’t hurt if I just tell this one little fib”) or have immoral thoughts flash into our minds. Or maybe anger gets the best of us and we marinade in thoughts of administering “justice.”
Speaking of which, there’s another challenge for us in responding correctly outwardly to the negative emotions that sometimes spontaneously erupt within us. How do I react when somebody says or does something unkind to me? How do I react when a child errs, sins, disobeys, or otherwise disappoints me? How do I react when my spouse frustrates me? How do I react to feelings of selfishness or tiredness or loneliness?
I am very much intrigued by the scriptural statement that says the Savior “suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.” I am, in fact, in total awe of that. Does it mean that wrong or negative or even sinful thoughts came into his mind but he was able to simply let them pass through him without giving them any attention or even pausing to consider them? Does it mean that he, too, was subject to negative emotions but that he never reacted wrongly to them? My mother reminds me all the time to “Act. Don’t react.” Perhaps the Savior never reacted but always acted—and those actions were motivated by love for others. Perhaps he was always in control. There’s really no “perhaps” about it; he was in control.
I might argue that the greatest gift any of us has is agency. “Acting” means that we stay in control of ourselves enough to make thoughtful, conscious decisions. “Reacting,” at least as my mother has used that term, means conceding or deferring our agency. “Being acted upon” means failing to use our agency altogether. Clearly the goal is to remain in charge of myself and to always act upon thoughtful choices. I have disciplined my children both in “acting” and in “reacting” modes. There is a huge difference! I feel very positive about the former—and very ashamed of the latter.
I have heard President Scoresby talk about Matthew 5 and his thoughts about what the Savior was teaching when He said to turn the other cheek, to walk two miles when compelled to go one, to give up your cloak, too, when already forced to give up your coat. His idea that the Savior is teaching us to remain in charge of ourselves, even when we are being victimized, is helpful to ponder.
Surely, living happily includes controlling myself and not compromising my precious gift of agency. I should like to become much better at this.
Suffering temptation—whether through unproductive thoughts or through emotions that might easily lead my behavior in poor directions—is not going away. Even the Savior suffered temptations (plural). My goal is to learn to give no heed unto them; to let them pass by or pass through; to keep my mind focused on choosing actions—and even thoughts—that will leave me and others in the happiest places possible; to act and not to react or surrender control of myself. Tough task, but pursuing it is surely a significant part of living after the manner of happiness.
I don’t have much time to write this week, but do have one thought that’s been on my mind a lot lately that I would like to share as my plane heads quickly toward that darn 10,000-foot level and it is this: fast offerings are under-utilized in the LDS church!
By “under-utilized,” I do not mean that what is received by the Church is either too-little or poorly spent by the bishops of the Church. I mean, rather (and rather bluntly), that the members of the Church do not pay enough in fast offerings.
Fast offerings can, and generally do, bless those on whose behalf they are spent, of course. But fast offerings also bless the giver. And I think there is a correlation between the amount given (not in absolute terms but in relative terms—remember the widow’s mite) and the blessings received.
When I was a senior in high school, my seminary teacher told me he heard Marion G. Romney (I think) say that if members would double their fast offerings, the Lord would double their income. And he said he did it and it worked. I’ve never felt comfortable trying to hold the Lord directly to that promise for myself, perhaps since I haven’t directly heard a prophet say such a thing and I think I’d feel like I was tempting or testing the Lord somehow and I don’t think it’s my job to test him.
On the other hand, the Lord has invited us to try him with regard to tithing. “Prove me now herewith,” He said. So perhaps it’s not a stretch to think he invites us to do similarly with fast offerings.
At any rate, we ought to pay generous fast offerings without expectation of any “return on investment.” Caring for the poor is a fundamental responsibility of every Christian. It’s so fundamental, it makes me wonder why it isn’t brought up in the temple recommend questions. “Do you provide generous fast offerings in support of the poor and the needy to the extent your circumstances will allow?” Or something like that.
I also wonder why we do so little to teach our children to pay fast offerings. We sometimes complain about our children seeming insufficiently grateful. Yet we too seldom teach them to appreciate what they have by sharing it with those in greater need than they.
Of course, I don’t wish to imply that I’ve mastered either the adequacy of my own fast offerings or the teaching of my children. I certainly know many people (medical professionals, psychologists, social workers, policeman, professional teachers, etc) who spend far more time ministering to people’s basic needs than I do. However, I have experienced enough to testify with great confidence that generous blessings follow generous fast offerings—and less generous blessings follow less generous fast offerings. This is an opportunity we should not minimize. For many good reasons.
Caring for the poor in significant ways is a key element of living after the manner of happiness!
Ignorance, Knowledge, and Happiness
It has been said, with some authority, that “wickedness never was happiness.” I agree. And would add: ignorance isn’t happiness, either. I guess it may be bliss to some people in a way for some period of time—but it isn’t happiness.
Does that mean that knowledge is happiness? Well. Some knowledge is. Jesus said, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent.” Life eternal sounds pretty happy.
On the other hand, happiness through knowledge is conditional. “To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” Some people seem to handle knowledge better than others. For some, what they know magnifies for them the things they don’t know and they seek to learn from a position of humility. For a few others, being well read can make them proud and arrogant. Knowledge, by itself, is not happiness. How we approach knowledge and what we do with it matters.
One of my very most favorite things about Joseph Smith is how he taught his followers to use their noggins. Would we describe Joseph Smith as a charismatic prophet? I think in some ways, yes. But he was a leader who taught people to think for themselves. He taught faith, but not blind obedience. To Joseph Smith (or, better, through Joseph Smith) can be attributed teachings such as these:
- “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”
- “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom.”
- “The glory of God is intelligence.”
- “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”
- “A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge.”
- “Obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries.”
- “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.”
- “Study it out in your mind.”
- “Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books.”
And I could go on. This was a man raised in much ignorance—or at least without significant formal education. Yet he studied—and taught—and started schools. I have been told that for the members of the church Joseph Smith restored, there is a positive correlation between level of education and level of activity. There should be!
May I suggest that among the list of things of which we should not be ignorant are these two: First, we should not be ignorant of Joseph Smith—neither of his life nor of his teachings. We ought to know the man—what he did, what he said, what he taught, what others said and thought of him, what he accomplished, etc. Second, we should not be ignorant of spirituality, the workings of “the spirit,” the sources of testimony, and the reality of our need to ultimately determine some critical things by relying on the Spirit to guide our faith and choices.
“For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit.” The Spirit and knowledge work together. They don’t need to be balanced, per se, as much as they both just need to be fully utilized.