Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Straight and Narrow Path: How to Navigate Moral Dilemmas

This Christmas season I would like to discuss moral dilemmas, my mission, and of course: Jesus.

But first, let's talk about commandments.  Commandments are given through a prophet of God for general direction and large oversight of the body of the Church, but individual commandments are also given through personal revelation from God through reading the scriptures, inspiration, etc.  Often these general commandments and our individual circumstances intersect, and occasionally the direction we receive with what we understand can cause a contradiction, resulting in a moral dilemma.  A moral dilemma is when two commandments are presented and when following one, you will inevitably break the other.  The first moral dilemma was presented in the garden: the Lord commanded Adam and Eve to both "multiply and replenish the earth"(Genesis 1:28) and also to not partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. From their understanding, they could not do both.  As Lehi states: "And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin" (2 Nephi 2:22-23).

Other moral dilemmas in the scriptures include Nephi killing Laban (1 Nephi 4:10), Abraham lying about Sarai being his sister (Abraham 2:24), and Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Sometimes moral dilemmas aren't having to choose between two commandments but between our personal moral obligations and long held social constructs: do I speak up to my boss about views I care about and risk my job or stay quiet? Do I do what's right for my family or focus on the needs of others?  Do I call someone out or remain silent?  The homeless man on the street--someone looking for help or a scammer trying to take honest people's money?  No matter our stance on any matter of subjects, through family and work, learning and leisure, justice and mercy: we all face moral dilemmas all the time, every day.

A lesser known moral dilemma is the story of Ahaz in the Old Testament, whom God commanded to form an alliance of Judah to Assyria so as to foil the alliance between Syria and Ephraim, but Ahaz allies Judah with Assyria anyway, causing problems. More importantly, the Lord tells Ahaz to ask of Him a sign (Isaiah 7:10-11) but Ahaz refuses, saying "I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord" (Isaiah 7:12, 2 Nephi 17:12). Understandably, we are generally counseled in the scriptures to NOT to ask the Lord for signs--see Alma 30:43-50. But whether as mercy or judgement, the Lord gives him a sign anyway (Isaiah 7:14, 2 Nephi 17:14).

Ahaz is generally considered a wicked king by Bible scholars but how often are we told to do something by God and we refuse, citing other commandments as reason to not obey. We often cite the faith of Nephi: "I will go and do the things which the Lord commands, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them" as reason that we should be able to follow ANY commandment God gives us. Yet we all face our mortal follies and the fact that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).  We cannot follow all of the commandments all the time and experience mortality.   This is what Stephen Robison calls "The Great Dilemma."

Elder Richard G. Scott this last conference spoke about a moral dilemma a whole group of people faced in the Book of Mormon: "The people of Ammon were at a critical moment of their spiritual lives. They had been true to their covenant never to take up arms. But they understood that fathers are responsible to provide protection to their families. That need seemed great enough to merit consideration of breaking their covenant."  The moral dilemma there is eventually solved by their faithful sons, the "Army of Helaman" taking up arms to defend the people but like Elder Scott laments, how those fathers "must have privately wept."  Moral dilemmas can make us aware of ourselves: our broken pasts, the inner most intents of our heart, our secret desires, and our highest aspirations--which is why I think they are worth exploring on a personal and public level.

Now I think it's important that we DO draw lines in the sand in our behavior, whether religious or social--and if anyone is thinking God is telling them to kill someone a la Old Testament examples listed above, please contact your ecclesiastical leader immediately. I think these examples are powerful today though because sometimes breaking one long held commandment or construct to follow another can feel akin to bloodshed. Charles Darwin, raised a Christian, told a friend that writing his "Origin of Species" on evolutionary theory felt like "confessing to a murder." Huck Finn struggles over whether to turn in Old Jim and chooses Hell over Heaven. In short, moral dilemmas are hard. And with the increasing mass accountability provided by social media--they are not going away.

Because of the uncomfortableness of a moral dilemma, we often want to remove it and get on with our lives.  We do this by either ignoring it completely ("I'm just gonna pretend that homeless man isn't there and maybe the whole issue of homelessness will disappear with it") or we pick a side and slowly let confirmation bias set in.  As uncomfortable as a moral dilemma is, I personally find more peace in trying to identify truth rather than ignoring it or picking sides.

In the New Testament, the Pharisees (those lovers of the law) often tried to catch Jesus in His words, using moral dilemmas to incite him. But Jesus, that perfect example, never faltered. This is why when often faced with a moral dilemma Christians will question themselves: "What would Jesus do?"  When petitioned on a myriad of subjects and situations he would speak truth: "The sabbath is made for man" (Mark 2:27) he would reply. "Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk?" he responded (Luke 5:23). "Love the Lord thy God" he confounded "This is the first and great commandment." And with the following charge to "love thy neighbor," He confidently ascribed "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:40). He knew the Old Testament in its truth better than they did and dictated with what I always imagined peaceful confidence, speaking "as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:29).  Understandably this drove the Jews nuts.

One of the my most powerful personal stories concerning moral dilemmas is from my LDS mission. While struggling with Depression and a mission president who didn't fully acknowledge mental illness I sought council from the Lord what I should do, how I should strengthen myself and feel better so that I could do the work I knew He wanted me to do. I often received impressions and council which was very hard to follow since it occasionally conflicted with mission rules. For anyone who has never served a mission, mission rules are often treated like commandments, where obedience will bring blessings for you and your investigators, while breaking them will lead to sorrow and missed opportunities. Missionaries who are obedient are seen as exemplary while those who disobey or appear to do so are seen as "rebellious" or "apostate." Having to deal with depression and other health issues while trying to serve a mission was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Harder than high school, harder than Depression alone, harder than childbirth, harder than motherhood (so far). This may seem dramatic (or not dramatic depending on your life circumstances) but I care very much about the Lord's work and didn't want my personal struggles to interfere with it. I found great comfort in Doctrine and Covenants Section 3 and the Lord telling me to "remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men." When I stopped worrying about mission rules and mission culture and started listening to the Lord more, my mission slowly improved and I was able to finish, broken but strong.

One day while struggling I was praying and felt strongly that I needed to talk to my Dad. Calling home for missionaries only happens twice a year on Christmas and Mother's Day so as not to distract from the work. Other exceptions are made for sincere personal needs like health or schooling but it's only by approval and my Mission President was already weary with all the "permissions" I had been asking for during those long Missouri winter months. Simply just calling home was too much for me to handle. I told the Lord I couldn't do it, that if He really did want me to do that I would need His help or I would need Him to help me another way. A few days later we were home for lunch.  I was in our room on the twin bed provided by the dear members we were living with, when our small mission cell phone rang, a shiny slate colored Sprint flip model.  When I received the phone I saw my own home phone number staring back at me! I answered quickly but tentatively, my heart racing wondering if something was wrong but so grateful for the opportunity.

"Hello?" I answered.

It was my Dad.

He said that his "spider sense" had been tingling and that he felt like he needed to talk to me. I burst into tears knowing that the Lord had simply and mercifully found a way for me to get some comfort during a dark and difficult time. The story still brings me to the point of sobbing whenever I relay it, even as I type these words now. This isn't the only example of my attempts to navigate moral dilemmas before, during, or after my mission but it will always be my most dear because I feel it reminds me of the power of prayer and the love of a Heavenly Father for his child, answered by her earthly father.  Happily, this and other experiences like it, as well as psychological counseling and medication, have helped me largely overcome Depressive episodes and I have been able to move forward into a truly wonderful life (not even postpartum!)  Even still my compassion for those who may not always fit the "mormon mold" or where the framework of the Church might fail them has never left me.  I don't remember what my Father and I ended up talking about during those fateful 20 minutes, but the fact that it happened reminds me often and powerfully of "how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things and ponder it in your heart" (Moroni 10:4).

Essentially doing the Lord's will in one's life must account for a certain amount of flexibility. I've often thought that Hymn #270 should perhaps be rewritten to the effect of: "It may not be on the mountain height (or it may be)...It may not be on the battle front (or it may be)..." Even so, this is not a call for moderation (even with my often use of the admittedly limited word "moderate") as Elder Oaks states in a wonderful and aptly named fireside entitled "Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall": "Moderation in all things is not a virtue, because it would seem to justify moderation in commitment."

I think that in order to effectively navigate moral dilemmas in our lives we must, as Julie B. Beck, former General Relief Society President, states: use the Spirit. She says, "A good woman (and I would add man) knows that she (or he) does not have enough time, energy, or opportunity to take care of all of the people or do all of the worthy things her heart yearns to do....But with personal revelation, she can prioritize correctly and navigate this life confidently."  I believe that the potential exists for two people to be presented with the exact same moral dilemma and God could give them different answers, 2 different "right" outcomes and to each the other would seem to be "sinning."  In my story above God could have easily given me comfort in a thousand other ways that didn't involve breaking mission rules, but I think in that case it was important for me to learn His voice in my life and to feel that love He has for me through my own father. Elder Henry B. Eyring illustrated this concept for Priesthood leaders in his talk "Bind Up Their Wounds." In explaining how God can help quorum presidents know when to ask for service and when not to ask, he elucidates: "[God] knows whose wife was near the breaking point because her husband was unable to find time to do what she needed done to care for her needs. He knows which children would be blessed by seeing their father go one more time to help others or if the children needed the feeling that they matter to their father enough for him to spend time with them that day. But He also knows who needs the invitation to serve but might not appear to be a likely or willing candidate."  I see an increased sensitivity to this idea in Church discourse, that individual circumstances merit individual spiritual consideration.

This of course is in paradox to the idea that there is one way for everyone, but we are indeed a peculiar people of paradox.  Apparently Mormons are the most comfortable with this idea given one recent survey.  This is why within our collective congregation we must get comfortable with the idea of "internal plurality" and the freedom to share all our stories, whether orthodox or not.  And to do so even if they contradict one another, because as Joseph Smith stated beautifully: "in proving contraries, truth is made manifest."

Following the Spirit of course takes more self-discipline and self-mastery than simply picking which commandments to follow and always following them, but I think that's part of our existence here on earth: "And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them" (Abraham 3:25).   When we always remember the Atonement, we can both navigate these dilemmas without falling into pride against other people or despair that we fall short. As Elder Richard G. Scott puts it, “A righteous life requires discipline. Discipline is that characteristic which will give you the strength to avoid giving up what you want most in life for something you think you want now. It is a friend, not a harsh taskmaster that makes life miserable. Discipline is easier to acquire when it is rooted in faith in Jesus Christ, when it is nourished by an understanding of His teachings and plan of happiness” (emphasis added).  If we understand the Atonement, we can navigate moral dilemmas because His sacrifice pays for the breaking of one commandment.  The Atonement makes it possible to live in mortality because if we really understood our fallen state, we would be crushed under the weight of impossible despair.

One image that has immensely helped me understand and navigate the moral dilemmas in my life is that of the Straight and Narrow Path. During His Sermon on the Mount, after speaking some of the most powerful verses in all of scripture about not judging, giving freely, asking in faith and the Golden Rule, Jesus gives this image: "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:13-14). In Mormon scripture the Lord declares through Joseph Smith: "For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it” (D&C 132:22).

Since a path has two ways in which one can fall off it, two other verses help me understand the importance of staying on the path. At the climax of the Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ appears to the Nephites in the Americas, shows him the wounds in His body, and declares his divine role and mission as Savior. He then begins to expound doctrine in 3 Nephi 11:40 and states “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock.” Again in the Doctrine & Covenants the Lord states: "Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church." On either side of the path there is the potential to fall into a state of "more" or "less" and both have their consequences.  Either side would compel us to "be acted upon" rather than to act (2 Nephi 2:26).

I shared the following diagram with my Relief Society lesson a few months ago:

The narrow gate is usually referenced as our commitment and covenant to get on the path of discipleship: baptism.  Once on the path though we have a long and treacherous way to go in order to "endure to the end." Baptism is a one time event, an outward expression of our inward desires, but continuous repentance and conversion is a process, transformation more than destination.   

So often we talk about the "less" of the gospel: struggling with not giving service, laziness at keeping the commandments, using Christ's sacrifice as an excuse for sin (see Nicolitains), the plight of the unfaithful scholar, ignoring doctrine, not following the Prophet, judging people who are different than us, looking down on the poor, breaking the letter of the law...the list could go on.  Yet what I find disturbing in much of Church discourse and Sunday School worship is the lack of addressing the "mores" of the gospel: not accepting/receiving service, righteous indignation, not believing or acknowledging Christ's sacrifice for us (see Alma 37:46), praising blind belief, creating or perpetuating folk doctrine, deifying our leaders, judging people who are just like us, scoffing at wealth, breaking the spirit of the law...these to me are equally as important to our gospel living and worship and essential to effectively enduring to the end.  I think no one covers this folly of our virtues becoming vices better than C.S. Lewis in his book "The Screwtape Letters" about 2 devils working to trump a faithful christian.  As humans we like to both oversimplify and overcomplicate the gospel.  Both are a stumbling block to our eternal progression.  Both lead us away from the Spirit and can lead to our "destruction."  Both need to be repented of.

So how do we stay on the path?  How do we effectively navigate the moral dilemmas of our lives?  Like I stated above I think following the Spirit is an essential characteristic but I think there's a bigger, more important answer, the answer to everything: The Atoning Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  

One of my all time favorite talks is by Marvin J. Ashton called "The Tongue Can Be a Sharp Sword." He addresses "bashing" and in a day full of 24 hour news, mud-slinging elections, trolling, and daily internet vitriol that would make our ancestors turn in their graves--not to mention the daily atrocities that happen in REAL life, I think it all the more applicable today than when it was given over 20 years ago. He also talks about Charity. Sweet, sweet charity--real charity, the kind that "never faileth" (Moroni 7:46 and Corinthians 13:8). My favorite quote on charity is as follows:

Charity is, perhaps, in many ways a misunderstood word. We often equate charity with visiting the sick, taking in casseroles to those in need, or sharing our excess with those who are less fortunate. But really, true charity is much, much more.

Real charity is not something you give away; it is something that you acquire and make a part of yourself. And when the virtue of charity becomes implanted in your heart, you are never the same again. It makes the thought of being a basher repulsive.

Perhaps the greatest charity comes when we are kind to each other, when we don’t judge or categorize someone else, when we simply give each other the benefit of the doubt or remain quiet. Charity is accepting someone’s differences, weaknesses, and shortcomings; having patience with someone who has let us down; or resisting the impulse to become offended when someone doesn’t handle something the way we might have hoped. Charity is refusing to take advantage of another’s weakness and being willing to forgive someone who has hurt us. Charity is expecting the best of each other.

Fundamental attribution error posits that in going about our daily lives we often ascribe and overemphasize inward character flaws with other people's actions but underemphasize and use external events to explain our own behavior: that person was an idiot for speeding but we can't possibly be late for our own job.  Sometimes when we find the truth of the situation we feel remorse: the angry waiter who so deserved my minuscule tip turns out to be a weary father just trying to support a family and a dying mother on small wages.  We feel remorse after (and if) we know the truth but was there anything we could do before?  This is why Fred Rogers is my personal hero: he always trusted others were doing their best and never judged too soon.

To put even more guilt on your plate there is the the pygmalion effect.  Also known as "The Rosenthal Effect" it is the phenomenon where people will rise or lower to the expectations we have for them.  If I believe my employees to be hard working and industrious they will rise to that expectation.  If we believe our children and students to be dumb and uncreative then sadly and efficiently, they eventually will be.   Our own thoughts can cause people to become self-fulfilling prophecies.  This places a small but significant responsibility for the actions of others on our own heads.  The good news is we can help each other be better!  I've seen the fruits in my life as I've started believing people, taking them at their word.  I've felt it in my life when people believe me: it makes me want to make sure I'm being that good person they take me to be.  I think if we really realized how much we are all interconnected, we would be more careful about our actions.  Too often we forget to have charity and to give others the "benefit of the doubt."

I've also realized that if other people are in fact sinning, that they will be judged for it--not me.  And it doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong when the Lord tells me "For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged" (3 Nephi 14:2 and Matthew 7:2).  As Elder Holland says: “I believe with all my heart that if we can repent of our sins, if we can be charitable with the sins of others, if we can take courage toward our circumstances and want to do something about them, the living Father of us all will reach down and, in the scriptural term, “bear [us] up as on eagles’ wings” (D&C 124:18).”

I think when we realize how much we each fail at Charity--that commandment that Paul says we are "nothing" without--that second great commandment in the law, we start to realize how much more we need the Atonement and only then can we begin to make amends.  We must come to terms with that "Great Dilemma" that we are a sinner, because we don't go to the Doctor until we know we are sick.  And we are all very, very sick.  We need Charity so much and because Christ suffered for all of us, we don't have to keep score.  We can forgive ourselves and we can forgive others, and we don't have to judge others because they sin differently than us.  We can have that love because He first loved us, and loves all of His children.

When we stray from the path, in either direction, we can be humble, we can pray, we can repent.  Examine the fruits of ideas and situations and people with the Spirit because "by the power of the Holy Ghost (we) may know the truth of all things" (Moroni 10:5).  When we feel bitterness or resentment or fear or unrighteous pride we can recognize it and change.  Whether that's looking down at someone who isn't doing what they should or getting frustrated with someone who isn't as patient with us as they should be.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  We all need the Atonement, we all need Jesus: He is more than the reason for the season, he is the Reason.

"O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One.  Remember that his paths are righteous.  Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name" --2 Nephi 9:41