Reconstruction Part 2: Abandoning “Being Right” In Search of “Having Joy”

February 11, 2008
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In part one of this reconstruction journey, I talked about how being hyper-focused on being right intensifies the impact when you come to see that ambiguity (essentially the opposite of right/wrong clarity) is inseparably interwoven into the LDS gospel. I’ve been taught my whole church life to “choose the right” and I have heard testimony born time and again that we are so fortunate to have the whole truth (as compared to other partial-truth-holding faiths). Coming face to face with the reality of ambiguity is like diving into a very cold pool of water on a very hot day. In this follow-up article, I want to talk about my own reaction to breaking the surface of this water, and after allowing myself enough time to acclimate to the change in temperature, changing my focus so I can enjoy the benefits of this new fluid world.

To begin, I think I need to define the vocabulary. I’ve chosen to speak in terms of “being right”. What I mean by that is seeking to know the empirical truth because it is the Truth, and not because it can bring about some positive benefit for the knower. I feel that as Mormons, because of the implications of the restoration concept, we are very susceptible to looking at Truth as having implicit1 value because it is true and truth comes from God, and we can become content to not inquire about the explicit2 value. In lieu of actually understanding the explicit value of the Truth we presume to hold, we may substitute the satisfaction that we are among the fewer holders of this knowledge. The surrogate value is a sort of pride, but it exists in such a subtle form that we mistake it for drawing nearer to God. It makes you feel good, but the ultimate deficiency is that it does not make others around you feel good.

Even the good feeling you get from this satisfaction of being right, or the assurance that you are in the right place, doesn’t seem to match the expectation I get from the scriptural promises of The Good News. In this sense, the mere circumstance of thinking I have the Truth is deficient in its ability to make even myself truly happy. Being right does not even come close to touching what Peter spoke of as “joy unspeakable and full of glory”, or Ammon being “overpowered with joy”. The Book of Mormon really drives home the importance of this unspeakable joy in the oft-quoted verse from 2 Nephi, “…men are, that they might have joy.”

One of the upsides to having the assurance of Truth challenged for me, is that it exposes the lack of joy. Just like when you are empty of food, you can sometimes go for quite a while without feeling the pangs of hunger, but when your attention is awakened to your emptiness, you feel it full force. Having your own lack of joy revealed to you is painful. As is said in the Psalm, “They that sow in tears, shall reap in joy.” The sowing we do with these tears is to really ask ourselves why we lack joy. I feel like I have answered that question for myself. I share it now for you to take what you can from it.

I believe I have to let go of both the saccharine3 satisfaction of having the Truth and the distracting, self-centered pursuit of being right. Now, if I were my prior self, heavily focused on being right, I might take a statement like that to imply an abandonment of moral commitment. Its not that at all. In fact, I’m trying to suggest a new commitment to what I now see as a higher moral goal. This is the goal of having joy. After all, that is our purpose of being, right?

Again, my former self would look at that and see the abandonment of God (after all, Truth comes from God) in exchange for self-gratification. I think that view grossly misunderstands the nature of joy and the means by which it is generated. Real joy ( or love, or peace), as is proclaimed in scripture to be the result of goodness, is not anything like gratification. It is in itself paradox-producing, because in order to have joy for yourself you must lose your own self from your purpose and effectively work to bring joy to others. You only become a receiver if you become a producer.

So more than just *having* joy, I want to be a source of joy. I think it is the great jewel in the crown of Mormonism that we believe in our potential to be something divine. This idea that we can be a producer of light, not just a consumer. That is the standard that measures the value of any belief or position for me. Does this idea create peace, joy, progression in myself or others?

How then do I live in a framework of faith when I have abandoned the pursuit of acquiring Truth? Simply put, faith no longer becomes a proposition of knowing things that are unseen. Instead, faith is now an offering of hope given to a principle that proves itself joyful. I hope the principle is true, and I am willing to live with it like it is true as long as it is joyful, but there is no value its veracity. There is no satisfaction in having that piece of the Truth, and there is no disappointment in having given my faith to a falsehood. The fruit of joy that results is the explicit value.

Of course, living like this isn’t easy. I have a really hard time shedding the old habits. It’s instinctive to seek for justice, from a desire for things to be right, by actually taking joy away from the offender and then realizing with disappointment that justice does not create joy. I think there are some principles which may be eternal and essential and therefore are over-glorified. I think of a particularly popular analogy of the Debtor that places justice as one of God’s great attributes. The debt must be paid with suffering by someone, because justice must be satisfied. To me this suggests that God’s forgiveness is not powerful enough to overcome the demand of justice. It says to me that forgiveness doesn’t actually accomplish anything because the debt remains the same and is merely transferred to someone else to pay. I prefer to think that justice only exists to make forgiveness beautiful.

I am in need of amnesty, and the amnesty of God’s grace is incredible to me, but in those moments of closest contemplation of who I want to believe Jesus is, I find myself much less willing to cause so much pain to one who would love me. The parable of the debtor supposes that these two eternal opposites, justice and mercy, are in complete equality. It is Mormon doctrine that everything has its opposite, but certainly not that all the opposites are equal. The sting of death is swallowed up in resurrection. The plan of Jehovah triumphed over the plan of Lucifer by two to one. Good overcomes evil. Joy overpowers. Why then can mercy not overcome, overpower, or swallow up justice without having to doll out incomprehensible suffering on the one being who deserves it least?

I need forgiveness to be better than justice. I need more joy and less Truth. I want to stop being satisfied, and start being overpowered.


  1. American Heritage Dictionary, definition 3: Contained in the nature of something though not readily apparent.
  2. American Heritage Dictionary, definition 1b: Fully and clearly expressed; leaving nothing implied.
  3. American Heritage Dictionary, definition 2: Having a cloyingly sweet attitude, tone, or character.
  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    “It is our duty and calling … to gather every item of truth … Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers … all of whom have more or less truth … it is the business of the Elders to gather up all the truths … and brigh it to Zion” (I’ve shortened the quote, from Discourses of Brigham Young, 248) — One of many quotes indicating that we do not have all truth or all the answers.

    I think you’ve hit on a great truth, of one of the ways that we can seek the mysteries of Godliness and the peaceable things of the Kingdom of God. Very much enjoyed your post.

  • John Nilsson

    “I want to be a source of joy.”

    This post has made me smile, and I’m sure many others. You have succeeded.

    The Atonement and the different analogies used to describe and prescribe it to me and other LDSaints has dogged me my whole life. I have found Richard Swinburne’s take on it to be the most satisfying, which relies on the sacrificial model of the Old Testament and the need for mortals to take sin seriously, without at the same time feeling like Christ suffers more in a retroactive way for every new sin I commit. That always disturbed me.

    Legal models like the debtor and justice needing to be paid seem to be antithetical to what Christ was about as a person anyway. A bit too “Pharisaical”.

  • David

    Clay,

    Thanks for this post, it’s nice to see other people on the same and/or parallel journeys. I think we are in similar places. For me, the big realization came when I decided to stop trying to defend the version of “The Truth” that I had received and simply accept truths as best as they can be known. At that point the question for me became, “How do I understand these truths and what do they mean?” This is opposed to my old way of thinking where I was just pleased with myself that I had “The Truth.” Slightly different than your experience, but most likely compatible since the meaning of a truth is going to involve, to a very large degree, the happiness and joy of myself and those around me.

    I think the cautionary tale for those who have taken this journey is to not try and force others to come along for the ride. You cannot force, lead, coerce, convince, etc. anyone to leave the stage where one is simply pleased at having “The Truth,” it’s just too embedded in Mormon culture and human nature. You can help someone who has started the journey themselves, but they have to start it themselves. I am not accusing anyone of doing this, just something that I have learned on this journey myself.

    I think that one of the big things that this journey has taught me is that there is so much work to do in the church. When you are simply happy to have “The Truth,” the church simply becomes a repository for “The Truth,” while we all wait for some appropriate end-time event (death, millenium, final judgement, etc.). However, once you get beyond that you have to pursue making the church a happy and beautiful place, a place where people want to go, in short, Zion. This is a lot more work than just sitting around holding “The Truth.” I thought for a long time that the church would be doomed if we did not focus like a laser on having “The Truth,” but if we offer more beauty and happiness than anyone else can offer (which is predicated on having “The Truth”) then people will flock to the church more than they ever have.

  • Kent

    Excellent! I was reading in 3 Nephi 27:16 where it says, “And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled;” and I wondered how “full” I feel at times. There is no truth that is more important that that we are here on earth to serve each other, not to seek to be served (though it is wonderful when it happens!).

    I have often thought that what I need most from the atonement is to heal my relationships. We are taught that sin results in our alienation from God, but it also alienates me from others as I become self absorbed and feel less able to trust myself to reach out to others. The atonement not only removes the sin, but also mitigates the personal knowledge of wrong-doing by replacing that pain and knowledge of wrong-doing with a joy/knowledge that all will be made right for those I have hurt. The pain and the knowledge go together, but the pain seems to sap me of energy as I am generally able to ignore the knowledge of the small wrong acts that led to the pain of dis-ease and insecurity. Faith in Christ means faith in his ability to heal everyone. It is not necessary for him to have already healed the individual I have wronged for my pain to leave me, the fact that he will heal the individual sooner or later (or after death) is sufficient.

    There is no truth more important to me than to know that those I have hurt will be healed as I have been healed. I must be an agent of healing in the lives of those around me. Because I have been given much, I too must give. That is joy, that is truth. Any other “truth” will not bring happiness. No other truth has been so self-evident (at least for me growing up in the gospel with parents who have been good examples to me) but so difficult to really “know”. It is only by living forgiveness and service that the joy promised the saints is accessible to me. No prayer is answered more quickly without fail than the opportunity to serve another. Any attempt to know God or find joy without this paradigm has been self-defeating for me.

  • http://www.mormonmatters.org Clay Whipkey

    “I think the cautionary tale for those who have taken this journey is to not try and force others to come along for the ride.”

    David, great point. This is a big struggle for me. The rest of your comment was great, too.

  • http://www.mormonmatters.org Clay Whipkey

    “I have found Richard Swinburne’s take on it to be the most satisfying, which relies on the sacrificial model of the Old Testament and the need for mortals to take sin seriously, without at the same time feeling like Christ suffers more in a retroactive way for every new sin I commit.”

    I’m not familiar with that one, but I generally feel that the Old Testament is pretty brutal in its methods of getting us to take God seriously. You better take him seriously or else he will crush you. If that’s who God is, tell him to crush me already because I am not interested in his kind of society. In my experience, there is no motivation that is so complete and effective than that of love. We naturally want to please those who love us and will go to further lengths to do so than those we fear. Usually, when motivated by fear, we only do what we have to to avoid the crushing, and we resent it the whole time.

    I totally believe in taking joy seriously, to the point that I should be more conscious of how my actions (sins) might steal joy from myself or others. Personally, I think that’s where the definition of sin ends. I don’t necessarily think that blood must be spilled to get us to take it seriously, if we are motivated by the right thing.

  • David

    Clay and John,

    I wouldn’t be so hard on the Old Testament, nor would I pigeon hole it into “sacrificial models.” In all honesty I have read the Old Testament completely wrong my entire life, and I think most Mormons (and all other Christians) make the same mistakes. As proof of this, Jews read the Old Testament completely differently and come away with teachings of compassion and love that Jehovah has for his people, and that His people should have for each other and all of the world. As Mormons we tend to impose a view on the Old Testament that the law of Moses was given for less righteous, stubborn people. We also impose the false dichotomy that Jesus taught love and the Old Testament taught the law. In my opinion both notions hurt much more than they help and mask a great deal of the meaning of the Old Testament.

    I can’t really say much more than this in a short space. The Old Testament is easily the most complicated book of the canon and even after months of dedicated study I still have barely scratched the surface of the what the Old Testament has to offer.

  • http://www.mormonmatters.org Clay Whipkey

    David, fair enough. Learning the approach to God of other religions, and from *their* perspective, is a huge interest of mine. Thanks for the reminder.

  • John Nilsson

    From the abstract of Swinburne’s “Responsibility and Atonement”:

    “Each human owes atonement to God for his own sins, and owes it to his fellow humans to help them to make atonement to God for their sins. Only an individual sinner can repent and make apology, but others can provide him with the means to make reparation (and penance) (the two other parts of atonement). Jesus Christ, who, being God, owed nothing to God, provided his life and death as something that we can offer to God as our reparation (and penance) for our own sins and those of our fellows. This model of atonement, tantamount to the ‘satisfaction’ model of Anselm (as qualified by Aquinas) and to the biblical model of ‘sacrifice’, is the most satisfactory of the traditional theological models of the Atonement.”

    I was trying to get at my dissatisfaction with contemporary LDS ways of describing the Atonement and why it is necessary. What I like about the sacrificial model is that in it, Christ is not compelled to suffer himself to die by a cosmic judge (like in the debtor analogy popular in CES). That analogy makes God (as the judge) out to be a cold sadist at worst and at best, a helpless pawn of “Justice”. Which begs the question, why we worship such an impotent God who can’t trump an impersonal law for the sake of human love? (Which begs yet further questions)

    In the sacrificial model, it’s more like Christ out of love for us, asks us to look at his life and death so that we will see how seriously he takes our sin, and therefore how seriously we should take the actions we are responsible for which hurt others. We then mentally accept this and offer Christ’s sacrifice to God as part of our repentance.

  • David

    John,

    OK, I see what you are getting at, you are looking for a different model of how the atonement works. Mormons do tend to emphasize the penal substitutionary model of atonement (based usually on Alma), which is not appealing to me either. I don’t know which of the other competing models I like best, but I like penal substitution the least.

  • Stephen Joel

    “Being right does not even come close to touching what Peter spoke of as “joy unspeakable and full of glory”, or Ammon being “overpowered with joy”. ”

    Clay, this post reminded me of a William James book I read in college about the ‘Pragmatic Theory of Truth’. As I remember it, he made a similar argument that Truth with a capital ‘T’ is unattainable and, even if it were, we would be incapable of recognizing it as final Truth. Instead, though, we approach truth by how well ideas and approaches [to whatever] practically fit into our lives- by how dependable an idea is and how well it helps us get on in the world. This seems to mesh with your approach of pursuing those ideas and practices that bring you and others joy rather than being so concerned about that elusive Truth, irregardless of its ‘fit’ in your and others’ lives. Thanks for the great post.

  • http://bmo-web.com Benjamin Orchard

    Clay,
    as a reminder, when you read the Old Testament and the model of God there, remember that Nephi and those in the BOM should have been writing from an understanding of God that closely mirrors the understanding that the Jews had of God, including the sacrificial model.

    It is sometimes hard to remember and reconcile the two because they do have a different feel. The BOM does not have the same emphasis as the OT on sacrifice and the feeling of a people who couldn’t learn right from wrong because we see the contrast. That is, while there was a group of people who were slow to learn, they were balanced by another group, and the record focuses on the group that was eager to do good for most of the record. The OT, by contrast, focuses heavily on the flaws of a basically good group, rather than contrasting it with the much more egregious evils of other groups.

    Remember too, that ultimately that both the Nephites and the Jews suffered very similar fates: they were largely destroyed and scattered. The Jews have been restored to Jerusalem, but the Nephites have not yet been restored in any meaningful way, if indeed they will ever be restored and not simply integrated to the church as what few now indirect descendents they have are alive are baptized unknowingly into the churh.

    I think I had a point. What might it have been, I wonder?

  • TJM

    Great Post.

    There are many times in life you have to ask yourself: “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to be right?”
    Because more often than not, you can’t have both.

    With regards to my friend “Truth”:
    It will set you free. But the freedom comes with a price that is sometimes much more than you expected to pay.

  • Peter Brown

    It’s not BEING right anyways, it’s LIVING right. I think that’s the best way to look at it. Sometimes we fall into the culturally accepted post-modern notion of developing your own truth according to how you conceptialize it, and thus, you will find joy in it. I find that a bit impausible. Being obedient to the commandments is joy, and not talking about check-mark thou shalt nots, but the thou shalts of helping one another, feeding the poor, lifting the sick and afflicted. Along with restraining from doing wickedness, pro-active righteousness imbues joy. So in a sense, you can have it both ways.

  • David

    Sometimes we fall into the culturally accepted post-modern notion of developing your own truth according to how you conceptialize it, and thus, you will find joy in it.

    Excellent point. When you learn about the “dark sides” of Mormon History/Doctrine there are two paths you can take. One is to embrace post-modernism and throw away exclusive Mormon claims to truth. The other is the accept the truth as it is and re-evaluate what it means and how to understand it. All too often people take the first route, without realizing that it makes just as many exclusive claims to truth. “It’s all good, all religions are just fine” makes the same type of epistemological claims about objective reality as saying, “This is the one true and living church,” it is just more PC to say the former rather than the latter.

    The challenge in learning the dark side is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. You have to move beyond being pleased as pie that you have “The Truth” to “What does it mean and how do I understand this?” Even scarier, “I am radically free and I am forced to make choices. Sometimes prophets say stupid things, so I can’t slavishly follow and believe everything they say. Even if it were the case that I could, I don’t have enough time to do everything asked. This leaves me radically free, I HAVE to choose, now what?”

  • http://www.mormonmatters.org Clay Whipkey

    “I am radically free and I am forced to make choices. Sometimes prophets say stupid things, so I can’t slavishly follow and believe everything they say. Even if it were the case that I could, I don’t have enough time to do everything asked. This leaves me radically free, I HAVE to choose, now what?”

    Exactly.

  • John Hamer

    I’ve really been struck by this post. I really like the sentiment and I only haven’t commented because my thoughts are a little tangential. I am someone who gets a lot of satisfaction out of being right. My partner Mike sometimes echoes/reverses a line that Homer says to Marge, “Don’t you ever get tired of being wrong all the time?” (which I say to him) by saying, “Don’t you ever get tired of being right all the time?”

    I know that’s not precisely the same thing you’re talking about in terms of “being right” — I have no claim to have a mastery over “The Truth.” But your thoughts on taking exclusionary satisfaction about being “right” amid those who are less right have got me to thinking.

  • http://sunstoneblog.com Matt Thurston

    Nice post, Clay. I’ve read it a couple of times. Your faith journey seems to mirror my own, in many respects. I look forward to reading more chapters from the story of your “reconstruction.”

    Overcoming the right/wrong, true/false dialectic was a difficult but major breakthrough for me. It culminated for me about three years ago at about 4:00 in the morning after another sleepless night wrestling with my faith demons. My chief concern was Joseph Smith, and my inability to determine if he was a true or false prophet. Each answer resulted in extreme cognitive dissonance, for different reasons.

    It wasn’t until I came to see him as “a prophet” (i.e. as a vessel — person, scripture, song, etc. — through which God communicates to his children) as opposed to “The Prophet” (i.e. the foreordained person, second only to Jesus, who ushered in the Restoration for which all mankind, past, present, and future, must eventually accept or reject) that the dissonance cleared, and I was able to begin the long but incredibly rewarding process of piecing together and, really for the first time, owning my faith/beliefs.

    It is a testament to how hardwired my paradigm of “being right” was, that this 4:00-in-the-morning epiphany, if you can call it that, which seems so obvious to me now, felt like the equivalent of solving some great mystery wrapped inside a riddle inside an enigma.

  • http://www.burningbosom.com Andrew Ainsworth

    Clay, I too enjoyed and appreciated this post. It takes courage to open one’s own journey up to the world, and I am moved when I hear about anyone’s sincere search for truth regardless of whether it strictly mirrors the molds or patterns we are used to.

    Something I cannot stress enough is that I don’t think anyone should feel guilty or bad about themselves because they wrestle with their faith. We should, of course, feel guilty for sin, and sometimes sin can lead to doubt and disbelief, but that does not mean all doubt and disbelief is the result of sin. The “veil” ought to make it obvious that God wanted to give us a reason to doubt; he wanted us to have to struggle to see and understand him, and maybe even to see how we would choose to live our lives believing that he’s not even there. We also acknowledge in our Ninth article of faith that there are many great and important things that we don’t understand. So knowing that we’re still missing some major pieces of the puzzle, I don’t blame anyone in the Church who is having a hard time seeing how it all fits together. I think every thoughtful person is in that boat to some extent or another.

    I like Matt Thurston’s words above about his faith journey changing his understanding of what it means to be a prophet. That has been one of the main effects of my own faith journey as well. It doesn’t make me appreciate Joseph Smith any less. To the contrary, when I consider his shortcomings, I am awed and heartened by the many beautiful truths that he gave us. The fact that some of the things he said or did might have been wrong (which he himself acknowledged when he said some revelations are of man or the devil, and when he referred to himself as a “rough stone”), does not take away or negate all of the many beautiful truths he restored.

    And it gives me hope. I know I’m pretty flawed, but I also still feel like God loves and talks to me in spite of my flaws. If my flaws don’t prevent me from being inspired, why should I ever conclude that Joseph’s flaws prevented him from being inspired?

  • http://www.burningbosom.com Andrew Ainsworth

    Clay, I also agree with the idea of focusing on the “fruits” of a principle, as opposed to obsessing about its “truthfulness,” because it seems to me that is exactly what Jesus told us to do. The only test for truthfulness he ever gave was essentially an instruction to focus on goodness, with the idea being that goodness is sufficient proof of truthfulness. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” “Can a bitter fountain bring forth good water?” “Do men gather figs of thistles?”

    I think His message is that goodness defines and reveals the truth, rather than the other way around.

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