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Opting Out

Today our relief society lesson will be about a talk by Elder Christofferson titled "Why the Covenant Path" I haven't had the lesson yet, since my meetings don't start until 2 pm, but I did read the talk ahead of time and there is one item that caught my attention. It is a related topic to the one I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in my Cafeteria Plan of Happiness.

Elder C talks about the benefits of remaining on the covenant path for members of my church. That means keeping the covenants made at baptism to mourn with those that mourn and to become more like Jesus Christ. And I agree that there are many benefits, including the ones discussed in the talk.

He also talks about unforced errors in a tennis match, and likens those errors to our various departures from our covenants. "Too often" he says" our problems or challenges are self-inflicted, the result of poor choices."

I believe this is true, and there is definitely value in examining the blessings we received in our own lives by living according to our faith. It helps us evaluate our own progression and renew our commitment to improve and develop our character. But I also think it can lead us to a flawed thought process that can hurt both ourselves and our neighbors as we walk our own unique pathways.

I think it can diminish the capacity for compassion when we see someone struggling, even when that someone is ourselves.

Living the gospel does help me avoid certain daily struggles. If I never consume alcohol, I am unlikely to face the struggles of alcoholism, for example. However, it can lead me to feel a tiny bit self-righteous about someone else who does struggle with alcoholism. After all, that person could have opted out of that problem by avoiding alcohol too.

For another example, let's say there were a disease ravaging the entire planet, and that the governments of the world and pharmaceutical scientists from around the globe worked together to create a life-saving vaccine in record time. Now, before the vaccine existed, everyone was equally susceptible to contracting the disease and it was easy to be compassionate towards those who became ill. But, once everyone has had an opportunity to have that vaccine, it becomes more difficult to want to modify behavior to avoid spreading it.

Not that anyone would ever do this, but if there were a misguided segment of the population who exercised their personal freedom, well within their rights, to opt out of the vaccination, and then those people became sick, it would be similar to one of those unforced errors. The illness would be a consequence of their own personal choices. Am I required to be compassionate towards those people? Is our society required to care for them? While the answer to those two questions is clearly Yes, it is easy to see why it might be more difficult to exercise that compassion when we see the problem as self-inflicted.

So, if I pay my tithing and magically have enough money to pay my bills every month, I might be inclined to assume that that is the natural result of paying tithing. When I see a ward member struggling with finances, I might suggest to her to pay her tithing, because my experience has been that paying tithing solves financial struggles. However, that sister who has been sacrificing to pay her tithing every week would not appreciate that advice as much as I expected.

You see, financial struggles are not a punishment from God as a direct result of not paying tithing, and you can't just opt out of those struggles by paying your tithing.

I think most of us would agree with that premise. But sometimes our behavior suggests otherwise. If she would just come back to church, her life would be so much easier, we think. If that person would repent, he would be happier. Those thought processes denote the idea that all of a person's problems are unforced errors.

Just as problems are not only caused by sin, I don't think we can draw a direct line between sinning and specific consequence. Not every person who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. While I think we sometimes do act as if someone else experiences a specific problem because of a specific choice, I think the most dangerous aspect is when we do it to ourselves.

Don't tell anyone, but I am not perfect. I have, on occasion, done something that I regretted, or felt guilty about. When life gets challenging, it can be easy to say this hard thing I have to do is because I made that choice. For example, I might feel like my recent mental health struggles are a punishment from God because I stopped attending the temple for a while.

I think this is the most dangerous line of thought because it casts God in a vengeful, punishing role, rather than a loving father. It is easy to do this, because God was described that way in scripture, especially in Old Testament, but not exclusively. But I think that is not how it works. I don't think God is sending us trials. I think He might allows us to experience hard things, because that's how growth comes. I think He will give us suggestions for behavior that might help us avoid some of those hard things. But I don't think He is looking down on us marking a checkbox on a list of sins and consequences, and its definitely not a one to one relationship. Just as we can't select from a menu of blessings by keeping a specific commandment, we don't opt in to specific trials in life by making certain choices, and many times we can't simply opt out of them either.

Elder Christofferson does clearly say that there are unavoidable woes of life, and clearly he understands that not all problems are "unforced errors." It is easy for me, as a human person, to slip into this black and white thinking that keeping commandments equals happy so if you are not happy you must not be keeping commandments. I have to be mindful of this tendency and correct it when it happens.

God is our loving Heavenly Father and he wants us to be happy and to develop our characters, to become better people and help us reach our potential. He probably won't help us avoid the consequences of our choices, but He can help us develop the character to manage those consequences ourselves.

I believe that keeping covenants is important. I believe their are specific blessings that come from walking the covenant path back to God. I tend to think most of those blessings come in the form of perspective and stamina, the ability to endure the hard things and enjoy the good things of life. I think the come in the form of opportunities to grow and learn and develop, to serve our fellow man and to make the world better now. Those blessings can be harder to measure, but have longer lasting impact on our relationship with God when we learn to look for them.

Let me know your thoughts! I would love to hear what other insights you had on this topic or this talk. Thanks for reading!

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