Feast upon the Word Blog

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“Answering the sins of the people upon our own heads…”

Posted by joespencer on May 1, 2007

Adam Miller recently pointed me towards a couple of books by Bruce Fink on the work of Jacques Lacan (a French post-modern psychoanalyst), and though I feel like I had better say that Lacan is not for the average person, I have to admit that I find myself saying over and over as I read (especially Fink’s “clinical introduction”) something like, “Every teacher in every capacity in the Church ought to read this!” But without trying here to push everybody into studying Lacan, let me turn to a scripture that all of this has got me thinking very carefully about: Jacob 1:19.

And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with out might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.

Now, first things first: this is not an isolated concern, especially in the Book of Mormon. It appears again and again (King Benjamin especially). The basic idea seems to be this: if those called to teach do not fulfill their calling to teach, they bear the weight of the sins of the people they are to teach. (It would be really interesting to think this in terms of our mercy/justice discussion, and especially in terms of the paper Jacob J wrote for Dialogue, but I will refrain from that in this post… though I may come back to it in the comments.) But beyond the basic idea…

Something broke in my thinking after I’d been in the mission field about a year. For the first year of my mission, I worked like mad, and I had almost no success. Or rather, we found people who would commit to baptism over and over and over again, but nothing ever happened. I served for almost eight months in a little branch that went from about twenty-five active to about twelve active during the time I was there. Of our three baptisms in that eight month period, one was never even confirmed, and the other two went inactive within a month. We worked all day every day, and we never saw any success. And I was completely convinced that it was because either (1) God did not want the branch to have success or (2) the people’s hearts were too hard there, and God would send success to the branch when the people there were ready. Note: I wholeheartedly believed that it was not the missionaries’ fault, since we (two companionships there) were working ridiculously hard.

But then something broke in my thinking, and I began to learn what it means to teach. I realize now (it wasn’t clear to me then) that what I learned was this: it was my (or at least our) fault. At the time it seemed just that I began to learn a few “tricks of the trade” or something, because I began having success. I left that branch right about the time things changed in my thinking. I went to another little branch of about twenty-five active, and it was struggling in exactly the same ways. But I now saw (or I now see that I then saw) that the people’s faults were entirely mine, and I went to work that way. I was in that branch for six months, baptized eighteen, reactivated twenty-five, and left the branch with an average sacrament meeting attendance of eighty-five or so. The difference between my two back-to-back branch experiences was astounding.

So what made the difference: I recognize that in teaching, the sins of the people were my own sins. If something was holding someone back, it was my duty to understand that more than anything else. And I had to learn all I could in order to help people repent. I began to realize that I had been right in a sense: people do not want to repent. But I began to realize that I had also been quite wrong: people will never want to repent, to change, to learn. That is, my work was to call people to repentance so clearly, so powerfully, and so probingly that they came to want to repent, to change, to learn. And that meant that I had to teach so personally, so powerfully, so directly, so unabashedly, that I could help people change their desires regarding repentance. I began to answer the sins of the people on my own head.

And it changed everything. I’ve been thinking about this principle in terms of missionary work lately because I’ve been working with the missionaries here with a couple of different investigators for a couple of months. And I’ve watched them struggle with exactly this issue. But I’ve also watched a young man with some serious transgressions try to communicate with a bishop, and their inability to communicate is, I think, closely related to this same question. And I’ve substitute-taught seminary pretty much constantly this whole school year, and I’ve watched as students who, I’m told, “just don’t want to learn” grow more and more fascinated in the gospel (and then they go and do something stupid like tell the full-time teacher, “Why isn’t Brother Spencer the teacher? I actually learn from him…”), and I’m sure this same question is at issue. And in giving a talk a week and a half ago, I watched as this drama unfolded in sacrament meeting. And on and on.

In short, what if we took this verse seriously? That is, what if we believed that if the people are damned, we are, unless we have taught them so clearly and so profoundly that they have explicitly chosen to reject the gospel?

51 Responses to ““Answering the sins of the people upon our own heads…””

  1. robf said

    Joe, how do you see this relating to Mosiah 28:3, where the Sons of Mosiah “could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any sould should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble”? I know that I personally don’t feel that deeply. Nor do most of the folks in our ward. Are we too quick to “live and let live”? How do we come to feel so strongly?

  2. Rob, I fear and tremble before that verse as you apparently do. I have certainly found that I come soon to feel that way about anyone I teach for a while, but it is hard for me to feel that way “generally.” But then is this a general feeling? Or is it a radical ability to see the weight of the individual person as she/he comes before me?

    And then how does this tie in with Jacob’s words, here? I really think it does tie in well. Could it be that the sentiment expressed in Mosiah 28 is what is behind the “approach” described in Jacob 1? Does that oversimplify the spirit of Mosiah 28:3?

    We most certainly have a long way to go as a people, do we not? “The same sociality…”

  3. Robert C. said

    Joe, if you haven’t read The Brothers Karamazov, you simply must. This is arguably the central theme of the entire novel. Here is a JSTOR link to an article by my mission president, Gary Browning (“Zosima’s ‘Secret of Renewal’ in The Brothers Karamazov“), that discusses this theme in the novel (there are several quotes in Russian, but I think you’ll be able to understand the article without knowing Russian). I’ll email you the article for your convenience (if anyone else is interested, email feast999blog@gmail.com, without the 9’s). The key references to Chapter XIV in Russian correspond to most English translations as Part II, Book VI (also labeled Chapter 39, for example here).

    The idea is stated explicitly in the novel by Father Zossima’s admonition that one should consider oneself “guilty for all.” For example, if I set an imperfect example for someone else who might’ve been positively affected had I been a better example, then there’s a very real sense that I share in the responsibility if that person does something wrong.

    I’ll have more to say on this topic later.

  4. Jim F. said

    Robert C and Joe Spencer: I suspect you know this already, but the Zossima admonition about being guilty for all was central to the thinking of the French-Lithuanian philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas.

  5. Thanks for the article, Robert. Curiously, my wife and I were planning on beginning to read The Brothers Karamazov together starting precisely tonight (we just finished Death of a Salesman last night). I have only read excerpts from it before, I’m embarrased to say.

    But I think there is a difference between what Dostoevsky/Levinas is doing here and what I’m trying to think about. Though I’m not sure how to put my finger on it yet. More soon…

  6. Robert C. said

    Joe, I think there is at least a subtle difference between the call to love and serve our neighbor (incl. the need to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc.), vs. the call to preach the gospel and repentance. It seems that’s at least part of the difference you’re getting at.

    Can you give me a few more hints on how your ideas relate to Lacan?

  7. As for Lacan: Lacan explained that neurotics, etc., do not want to change, though they do, and hence the burden of psychoanalytic work is on the analyst rather than the analysand. That is, the common statement that “A patient can only be cured if she wants to be cured” is not true, simply because no patient wants to be cured! A patient seeks therapy willingly because the symptoms have gotten to the point where the patient can no longer function, and all he wants is to have the symptoms returned to normal, not removed. But the analyst realizes that the problem runs far deeper, and has the duty to remove the difficulty altogether. I’m seeing this as similar to teaching in that most students come for one thing, and we are called to give them another. For example, many students come because they are hoping to get a few tips on how to be happier, or because they want to feel uplifted, or because they want to be told that someone (namely Jesus) loves them, etc. But our call (that is, God’s call to us) is to overhaul their entire spirits, to convert them by changing everything.

    This makes me want to make at least two further comments exploring the similarity in these terms.

    Have you ever had that experience where you go out doing visits to inactive people (with the missionaries, whatever), and you meet a sister who hasn’t been to church since she got involved with that one boy her senior year in high school. She was never really committed before that either, but she went with her parents. It has now been ten years, but she has been worrying lately about how profoundly evil the world is and about how on earth her kids would ever avoid becoming like the rest of the world. And then she realizes she wants her kids to grow up in “a” church. The only one she knows is the Mormon church, and so when you show up, she expresses interest in getting back out to church in order to get her two or three kids there and involved in something good. Her husband couldn’t care less, and she’s not interested in the truth, but she wants her kids there so that they don’t become screw-ups. And now she sits in the back of your Sunday School class. How do you handle the situation? Do you teach the way she wants you to teach, or do you fulfill the “divine commission” Elder McConkie talked about? This nicely illustrates the issue, I think: if I only give her what she’s asking for, her sins are upon my head. (They come up to hear the pleasing word of God, but I have to place daggers to wound their delicate minds…)

    Now from the teacher’s standpoint more directly. There is a profound tendency in the Church to make every lesson have a “take-home message.” The point of today’s lesson is (I’m thinking seminary here): “What band will you stop listening to this week so that you can be closer to the Spirit?” or “What is something you can change today so that you can be more modest?” (that last one was the weekly challenge at the seminary I taught at last week). In Sunday School it tends to be more like: “What are a few things we can do to make our prayers more sincere?” or “What can you do this week to serve your spouse in love?” With all due respect to those who take this approach, doesn’t it amount to a rejection of the call to teach? That is, we are giving people what they want, rather than what they need (remember Elder Packer’s dictum: “Answer the question they should have asked”?). And I think that it is precisely for that reason that we fail as teachers. And the sins that are committed by those in our classrooms are on our heads.

    It’s a harsh message. That is, it’s not the message we want to hear. But I’m thinking it’s the one we need to hear as teachers.

  8. robf said

    Amen, Joe. A challenging post that I’m still mulling over.

  9. Jim F. said

    Joe Spencer: I think your analysis is profoundly accurate. The issue is how to help people hear the message that they don’t want to hear. Often if we just say that message, it won’t be heard at all. I’m reluctant to use Socrates as an example rather than Christ, but I’m persuaded by something like Socrates’s argument that the teacher has to make himself or herself desirable and then allow that desirability to lead people to desire truth.

    I think that Socrates puts the matter too much in terms of personal desirability, but the general point is true: students must be attracted to something about the class–the teacher, the activity, the topic, . . . –or they are unlikely to be attracted to the truth.

    Put in Christ’s terms: teachers have a responsibility to help students have ears to hear. How do we do that?

  10. Cherylem said

    I want to give a slightly different point of view but one, I think, that segues nicely with this discussion. While Joe’s emphasis as been on taking on the sins of those he taught while a missionary, and for class members he is teaching currently, I think it is educational to look at the perspective of the convert. In many ways the mature convert is asked to take on the sins of the existing church – to love the church members with compassion as they are – as the convert continues life within the church body.

    Some converts can find the church decidedly unwelcoming, not in smiles and handshakes, but in attitudes and culture. Intelligent assertive women who are used to taking leading roles in business, education, politics, and/or community affairs can be rocked by a church culture which rewards sweet, submissive, silent and obedient. Men also can be disbelieving and disheartened by an emphasis on white shirts/tie, hierarchy, political conformity, and lack of forthright discussions in classes. This church culture – including the “unstated law of things” or whatever Packer called it – is not how people live outside the church and has little or nothing to do with one’s receiving revelation regarding the Book of Mormon, for instance.

    So in order for some converts to stay active and true to the revelation they received when investigating the church, they also have to transform themselves into someone who loves the gospel for the gospel’s sake, and then learns to love the members and take on their sins, in order to teach and serve within the church. (Of course I am speaking generally and not specifically.)

    So this love/taking on each other’s sins is a two-way street, in my opinion.

  11. BrianJ said

    Joe: After reading comment #7 I finally understand the question.

    Now a comment.

    Joe wrote (#7): “That is, we are giving people what they want, rather than what they need.”
    JimF wrote (#9): “teachers have a responsibility to help students have ears to hear. How do we do that?”

    I was reminded of our discussion on Robert C’s post about Secrecey in the Gospel of Mark. We talked about how Jesus might have used parables to attract an audience, but also to leave them confused on certain points. Their confusion forced them to either reject Jesus’ message as rubbish or to search deeper (within themselves and also to God). I think this technique is one way of addressing Joe and Jim’s comments. Put another way (rewording Joe), “We are giving people what they want, rather than followed by/mixed with what they need.”

  12. Great comments here.

    Let me take up Cheryl first, and then I’ll come back to Jim and Brian in a second comment.

    Cheryl,I think your comment nicely delineates the two groups of “total” converts (coming from entirely outside the Church) and “total” Mormons (coming from entirely inside the Church). And, as you point out, this creates a kind of “two-way road.” But I would that there is a third group emerging presently in the Church, one that has not really existed as it does in the history of the Church (or at least, not for a really long time…). I would call this third group: second generation Mormonism.

    First things first, don’t understand me to mean that only second generation Mormons are second generation Mormons; I’m just trying to summarize the idea under that image.

    The stock figure in this group: she grows up with LDS parents who joined the Church either before she was born or when she was too young to remember. She grows up under the influence of her obviously committed (perhaps ever more committed?) but certainly far from culturally “Mormon” parents, and she grows up under the influence of Primary, Sunday School, Young Women, and seminary teachers. Perhaps she goes on a mission and/or attends BYU (certainly institute, etc.). She marries in the temple, and so on. She is not quite a convert, and she is not quite a traditional member. She inhabits the border between these two groups, not quite at home in either camp, and yet entirely at home in both camps. She tends to be less susceptible to a judgmental attitude, tends to be far more understanding. And yet she is fully committed to the Brethren and the direction the Church is going, etc.

    I think this group is only really emerging for the first time in Church history for two major reasons. First, the increased communications abilities of the Church, combined with the increased size of the Church, has made it possible for those born in the Church but away from the Wasatch front to be very much in contact with the Church. Second, it is only in the past fifty years that the missionary program has seen enormous numerical success, and all of these converts have now raised/are raising this second generation of Mormons.

    I suppose that what I see happening in all of this is this: the second generation Mormons are the ones who are most able to see through the culture without calling the Church into question. And this presents them with a unique–and exciting–opportunity: they can walk both ways on the two-way road. I think it will be interesting to watch what happens in the Church over the next thirty years or so, since during that time we will see the majority of the Church become precisely these second generation Mormons.

    Now, in one sense, I bring all of this up because I am precisely a second generation Mormon. So I suppose I am in part defending myself. That is, I’m not speaking as a traditional Mormon who is trying to call all the converts to account, but as a second generation Mormon who thinks he can find the language in which to call all three groups to account, as commissioned.

    Or something like that.

    (Wow, that got long!)

  13. Jim and Brian, now to your comments.

    Jim, I really like the way you’ve rephrased the point here: what do we do to give our students/investigators/children/etc. ears to hear? And I think Brian is on the right track: we give them what they want in order to give them what they need. This clarifies much of what I do myself in teaching. A couple of examples…

    I find that youth especially enjoy the release of an aporia: “Now doesn’t what this verse say actually conflict with what you’ve always been told?” Active adults who are struggling to contribute tend to like apologetics: “Now critics of the Church have pointed to this verse as damning evidence of 19th century influence in the Book of Mormon, but if we look at this passage quite a bit closer we can find quite a bit more at work here than the critics are willing to discover.” Very active, very engaged adults tend to want to hear about the temple: “If we think this verse in terms of the temple ceremony, it takes on a whole different meaning.” And every one of these approaches can be used as a lead into teaching what actually needs to be heard, and I’m realizing as I write this how much I do each of these–how naturally these come according to the situation.

    Hmmm… I’d like to think about this a great deal more.

  14. Robert C. said

    (Joe #13, your comments in-passing about teaching youth reminded me that I wanted to thank you and everyone else who participated on previous discussions about teaching. I subbed last week for a choice group of 16-18 year-olds and, taking much from these previous discussions, was amazed at how well the lesson went and how eager this group seemed to truly engage the scriptures. It’s more of a struggle for me to find the best approach with my 12 year-old boys, but surely that’s why I still have the calling!)

  15. shelleyj said

    Joe, You’ve raised a profound issue here, that, in addition to its implications for teachers, may speak to the heart of what it means to be true disciples/witnesses of Christ.

    Joe #7: “Now from the teacher’s standpoint more directly. There is a profound tendency in the Church to make every lesson have a “take-home message.” …With all due respect to those who take this approach, doesn’t it amount to a rejection of the call to teach? That is, we are giving people what they want, rather than what they need….”

    I’m not sure I understand what you are getting at here. How is inviting people to change a rejection of the call to teach (which seems to at least include the responsibility of calling people to repentance)? Or is your issue with the manner in which it is done in the examples you give?

    shelleyj, a serial lurker

  16. Robert C. said

    Joe #7, thanks for explaining the tie-in to psychoanalysis. I’ve only read an overview-book on Lacan and it didn’t get into this aspect of his thought much. Any particular insights you gained from Lacan on how the analyst can help an analysand change, when the analysand does not want to change, at least on some levels? (Besides the analyst realizing that it is his job, not the analysand’s….)

  17. Shelley #15,

    Thanks for joining the conversation! Your last question gets to the heart of my concern: “Or is your issue with the manner in which it is done in the examples you give?” What I am suggesting in part is that those kinds of “invitations” are precisely not calls to repentance. I suppose I’m thinking of the Greek metanoia, translated “repentance” but literally meaning “a change of mind.” Inviting someone to do something this week is not calling them to repentance, but inviting them to do something positive; and though that positive thing might be very positive, it does not constitute repentance, nor does its completion suggest that that person is any “better” or “more converted” or “Christ-like” than before. I suppose I could draw on Elder Bednar’s talk a couple years ago on becoming rather than going/doing: we should become missionaries rather than go on missions. Or again on Elder Oaks’ talk of a few years before that on judgment as a question of what we have become rather than what we have or haven’t done.

    In the end, it is a great deal easier—a great deal less intimidating—to invite people to wash the dishes for someone else this week than it is to call them to a whole new life in Christ. I fear we fear too much, believe too little: I fear we are unfaithful in the discharge of that teaching duty.

    To tie this back in with the post in general, I think this changes in us when we begin to take the sins of the people on our own heads, that is, when we realize that their unconvertedness or their unrepentance is a consequence of our unwillingness to summon them to conversion. I’ve especially been amazed to watch this difference in classrooms with teenagers: many kids who desire to do the work of God in full commitment often grow bored or even frustrated with the simple invitations, because they feel that the lists and lists of things they can do “this week” are relatively unimportant (these become the “problem classes” that only act up because they are starving for truth).

    And on and on. Does that help?

  18. Robert #16,

    The book I’m reading is Bruce Fink’s A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. It has whole chapters in response to your question. I’m going to take up Lacan’s theory next, in Fink’s The Lacanian Subject. Then I’m going to tackle Lacan quite directly (this is per Adam’s “suggestion”).

  19. robf said

    I ended up using these thoughts as the basis for my home teaching lesson last night. Not sure we resolved anything, but it did lead to a Spirit filled discussion of some ways I can magnify my calling as SS pres in the ward.

  20. Robert C. said

    Thanks Joe (#18). And I think your references to the Bednar and Oaks’ talks (#17) is quite helpful in finding a good language for discussing these issues with others….

  21. Adam said


    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed Fink’s Clinical Introduction. When I first picked it up last Christmas I was floored by it. It gripped me for many of the same reasons you’ve so carefully laid out.

    Reading the Gospels with my Institute class last fall, I was struck again and again by the picture of Jesus as Analyst: his desire sustaining the process of transformation, his refusal to be what people expected or wanted him to be shattering their ability to sustain their fantasies through collusion with him, his enigmatic parables and responses forcing his interlocuters to shift their entire perspective in order to make any sense of their meaning – and all of this tied up with a careful and thorough description of sexuality and the centrality of family relationships.

    It’s especially appropriate to bring up Jacob 1:19 here: if there is any relationship in which the blood of the other person is on our hands (or in our veins), it is in the relationship of a child to a parent or a parent to a child. Such appears to me to be the essence of the gospel.

  22. I’m glad to see you join the discussion, Adam. I have to say, “floored” is a good word for it. I’m completely floored.

    What is really uncanny about reading it is that it describes in detail what I’ve been doing as a teacher for years now, what I’ve been doing since I “figured it out” halfway through my mission, way back when. As I was explaining the first few chapters of Fink’s book to my wife, she just started listing people with whom I have gone through the very process he describes (me being the analyst): the will to engage, the refusal to be like any other person, punctuation/picking on slips and the like, the asking of questions combined with the initial refusal to interpret, becoming the cause of desire/frustration, deflecting the drama in the name of interpretation, working through, and watching the possibility of charity develop. That all of this was, so to speak, automatic once I was what I suppose I would call “fully converted” is what is so astounding to me. I keep wanting to say outloud as I read that someone needs to write a kind of handbook for bishops from a Lacanian perspective, or for missionaries, or for teachers of the gospel, etc.

    Simply amazing.

  23. Robert C. said

    Well, this sounds to good to miss, I’m definitely going to read Fink. The Lacan book I read was from a literary perspective (some Routledge series), and although I quite liked it, it definitely didn’t get into these issues that I’m very interested in.

    Can you say a word or two about how this might compare or contrast with our discussion of The Peacegiver a month or so ago? One thing I thought was interesting was how the Grandpa seemed to fill the analyst role.

    Also, I think a version of this idea is what I like about Kierkegaard, esp. in terms of self-deception (I have “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing” mostly in mind here). In this sense, I think we might take prayer, scripture study and meditation as versions of (Lacanian) psycho-analysis where we become the analysand to the text, the Spirit, and God (I know I’m stating what is obvious to you and Adam, but it helps to try and articulate it myself, and hopefully it helps others see what you and Adam find so interesting in this way of thinking…).

  24. I’ll respond to this more fully later. For now, let me just add another text to the list that ought to be taken up in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis: Albert Camus’ The Stranger. As I’ve been reading Lacan, I’ve been revisiting that book, of all books, over and over again in my mind. Much thinking to be done.

  25. shelleyj said

    Joe #17: That does help clarify your position. Thank you.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, as a teacher, I can more effectively motivate people to change (or perhaps it’s more correct to say to provoke a desire to change, repent, and allow the power of the atonement to change them), and to do so because they have a deeper love for the Savior and desire to follow Him. This has helped me see how some of issues that have been on mind tie in to one another. Indeed, it seems that developing the sense of responsibility noted in Jacob, Mosiah, etc., may itself be the (or at least an) answer: if I feel responsible for the sins of those I teach, I will take my role as teacher more seriously and, more importantly, will prepare lessons with the goal of provoking people to become more (as Elder Bednar uses that term). That will inherently change the way I prepare, the degree to which I seek and rely on the Spirit, the topics I focus on, the questions I ask, etc.

    I think also that our “students” (I don’t like that term, but can’t think of a better one right now) can sense our motives behind our teaching and respond accordingly. If I don’t care whether they change, aren’t they less likely to care themselves whether they do? How would the response to King Benjamin’s address have been different if, say, King Noah had given it instead?

    Anyway, I don’t want to hijack your post. Suffice to say that it’s taken my thoughts in a new direction, and I appreciate the nudge.

  26. m&m said

    So, Joe, where do you think the blood of Christ factors into all of that? I just can’t imagine that the Lord is going to hold young missionaries doing their best responsible for not being “effective enough teachers.” I think the key is diligence, isn’t it? Is it the results that determine what diligence is, or is it our hearts?

  27. Michelle, I wish I knew exactly how to answer that. Here are some thoughts:

    I spent the first year of my mission “doing my best.” I was, for all intents and purposes, completely “diligent.” That is, I worked my tail off, I obeyed all the rules, I did anything I was asked to do, etc. And yet—this is hard to say, and yet I’m convinced it’s true—my heart was filled with pride, and I didn’t love the people, at least not really. And that is not because my heart was not in the work: I loved being a missionary, and I loved “teaching,” etc. But what became quite visible to me suddenly was that I loved my mission for selfish reasons: I loved my mission, what it did for me, how it was blessing me, how it was perfecting me, how it was preparing me for the rest of my life, how it was a symbol of my diligence, etc. And that led me to do the work with all of my heart: I did MY best. Now, let me be very clear: I believed with all my heart that I loved the people, and I wanted the best for everyone, and I hoped that the Church would grow, and I wanted desperately to baptize. It’s just that all of these things were colored—tainted—by selfishness: I was doing all of this so that I could be saved, to cleanse myself of sin, so that I could be clean and perfect before God.

    What changed when I was a year out: I began to recognize that it was precisely my fault that people did not join the Church, etc. I realized—and quite suddenly, really—that “Eternal life will come only when men and women are taught with such effectiveness that they change and discipline their lives” (President Hinckley). And suddenly, I didn’t care whether or not I was good. And the ironic thing is that I became—for that very reason—more obedient, more diligent in study, more focused on the work. I had literally done my best before that, and now I did better than that, and not because I somehow got better as a person, nor because my abilities somehow changed so that my best became something more. Rather, I ceased to do my best entirely: I began to do the Lord’s work and in the Lord’s way, and that completely oustripped anything I could have done. And it wasn’t that suddenly I allowed the Lord to do the extra: I did the Lord’s work. There was no “gospel of gaps” (where I do as much as I can and the Lord makes up the difference). Rather, I was no longer me, and so I was no longer limited to “my best.” And my heart was filled with love, and I no longer cared whether I was saved or not: I only cared whether this person, sitting across from me right now, was going to be saved. And if I didn’t know enough to be able to help that person over certain doubts, then I studied everything that would be necessary. I stopped studying, because the Spirit began to study in me, to search all the deep things of God: the scriptures opened up like a book I had never read before, though I had read the Book of Mormon a dozen times. I wish I knew how to explain what study became then and has since been for me… But anyway, I hope this is getting clearer.

    What I’m trying to say in a nutshell is this: it was when I began no longer to care about my own salvation, but about the salvation of the person I was/am talking to that everything changed. And only in that change have I found in any way that my salvation is sure (lose your life and find it; seek your life and lose it). We had a discussion here with the missionaries yesterday, teaching an eighteen-year-old girl that is dating one of my priests (I am the YM president in our ward). They began with the obligatory “Do you have any questions?” and she really nailed them: “You asked me to be baptized, but you haven’t really taught me what that even means. I feel like I should be baptized, and I want to do that, but I’m not sure I know what that even means. So teach me out of the scriptures what baptism is.” The missionaries were shocked, and they immediately retreated into abstract formulae they could assemble by citing proof texts. I don’t think they ever said “you” or her name. She was still as baffled as ever. Then one of the elders turned to read two or three verses of 2 Nephi 31, and I asked if we couldn’t just read the whole chapter together. They were a little uncomfortable, but they went along with it. One of the elders read the first four verses without stopping and then began to quiz her: “Nephi mentions someone baptizing Jesus, do you remember who that was?” She must obviously have been thinking about something in the first few verses, because she looked at him rather confusedly. So I jumped in: “Can I say a couple things about these first few verses?” No problem, so I began to explain them so that this girl understood exactly who was speaking, where we were in the scriptures, what that meant for what we were reading, and why he would begin to talk about the “doctrine of Christ,” what “plainness” would mean, etc., etc., etc. It took us, that way, some two or three minutes before we got to verse 4, and she understood when we got there, and the Spirit was very powerful. We did that, then, all the way through the chapter. And at the end she said: “Thank you. That’s very clear now.” And it opened up a full hour of discussion about a number of different questions she had had, I imagine because she was at last convinced they would be answered. And the Spirit was present in great power. The elders afterwards said they were shocked, that they had never been able to teach someone so “directly.” They all said they learned a great deal as they read and taught from the chapter, etc. And there was power.

    Because they taught her.

    (I hope that story doesn’t make me sound good or great or something. It is certainly not meant to do so, but simply to draw on the most recent experience that illustrates the point. The emphasis of the whole experience was on her, and the emphasis is always on this person before me right now. That’s the most important thing. Anyway…)

  28. Adam said

    After my initial comment the other night, my wife reminded of Jesus’ promise: “Ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” And it occured to me that while the verse promises a gift in response to our asking, it doesn’t say anything about Jesus giving you what you asked for.

  29. Robert C. said

    Re #27: My first encounter with Jim F. was reading this article that I think captures well the point Joe is describing about truly losing yourself in the service of others. I also particularly like Kierkegaard’s way of addressing this in “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing” (the whole text is easily found online with a Google search), the chapter on “Egocentric Service of the Good.”

    My mission experience was sort of the reverse of Joe’s in that I started out with a very natural and selfless love for the people and the work. But, after being transferred to the office for several months, and then entering an area where we had very, very little success, I began to lose my enthusiasm and love for the work and people. The biggest lesson from this experience for me to learn was that the desire and love that I had started off with were truly gifts given to me by God’s grace. I realized later that I had actually been a bit judgmental and self-righteous when looking on other missionaries who did not have the same pure love for the work and the people as I had. Later, when I had to pray fervently and very humbly to regain this gift of love, desire and enthusiasm, I had a renewed perspective and love for the other struggling missionaries whom I had been more impatient with earlier. This new understanding of the gift to love gave me a new sense of being guilty-for-all. I can’t quite articulate this right, but somehow my new understanding of grace made me feel much more compassionate and responsible-for and connected-to the struggles of all other missionaries….

  30. brianj said

    Joe, #7, wrote, “(remember Elder Packer’s dictum: “Answer the question they should have asked”?)”

    Do you have a reference for this? I found this attributed to Robert Millet.

  31. m&m said

    Hm. I think I’m starting to understand what you are saying. Still, I don’t know that you answered my question. Do you think you will thus have blood on your head because you hadn’t figured it out in the first half of your mission? I understand the growth you experienced and how a focus on service and love and others can change everything, but I still think we need to address the reality that most people spend a good chunk of their lives learning to “get it.” I believe that is part of the reason we are given opportunities to serve. In the end, as much as it should be about others, our service also is about us. The Lord accomplishes multiple things with, say, missionary work. (It was one of the things that blew me away as a missionary…I went for others, but ended up growing myself. My family was blessed. So many things happened at once that I was amazed.) And the Atonement, in my mind, is not only for those who “get it” completely, but for those who are diligently striving, perhaps still sometimes in their blind selfishness but still striving nonetheless. He takes us wherever we are and helps us, often in individualized, various ways. It sounds to me like the Lord often works in drastic, leaps-and-bounds ways with you. For me, the experiences are often more subtle, more step-by-step, and I tend to think that is more the norm than not.

    Don’t know if I’m making sense….

  32. I think I see where you are coming from, Michelle, though that probably means I don’t! I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how completely different the Church is (mostly in listening to reactions to the PBS special) for different people. But anyway…

    I actually did intend to answer the question, but I did it… subtly, in a kind of step-by-step style, in a perhaps “abnormal” way… :)

    Let me see if I can explain this. I didn’t really answer the question directly because I don’t think it has a direct answer. The shift I’m pointing to is a shift from “the atonement is for me” to “the atonement is for this person I’m speaking with.” In other words, once that shift has happened, the question of my own salvation no longer applies or obtains. Does that make sense?

    Another way to put this is to say that it is only abstractly that I can think about how the atonement saves me personally. To be quite frank, I’m totally uninterested in how the atonement saves me. I want to know how it will save this person right here. I want to know how it will unite this person to the Abrahamic covenant, the family of God, etc. I want to know that, and I really don’t have any time to stop and think about how the atonement can save me. Hence, you ask: “Does Christ’s blood not apply then to those still ‘figuring it out’?” If I answer abstractly, I would say: “Of course!” If I answer concretely, I would say: “What are you talking about? Why are you worried about that?”

    Does that make sense of my rather subtle, step-by-step, abnormal answer to your straightforward question?

  33. Rob,

    Looking around now, I think it must have been Robert Millet that said it. I’m trying to remember where I first came across it. But perhaps I’ve got two things crossed somewhere in my mind. So when I attribute something to Millet somewhere along the way, you’ll probably find that it was said by Elder Packer.

  34. m&m said

    Yes, in a way it makes sense. But let me suggest this: as you share your thoughts, you are taking on the role of teacher, and so how it comes across is important, too. Some of my questions are not simply related to my own struggles and questions, but if I’m worried about others’ salvation (like the poor missionaries who stumbled in your mind when that young woman asked her question) then I think that can show the layers of thinking that can come into play. I care about those missionaries and their salvation. The person “right here” was not simply that young woman, in my mind, but those missionaries as well. They may very well need some of the truth and power that that young woman needs, although she is the convert-to-be and they are already members.

    But maybe your concern is more focused on brining people into the fold in the first place? Might this be where we might be talking/thinking past each other a bit?

    Incidentally, I do understand what you are saying and I do think it is profound. I just think there are many layers to this. Thanks for giving me some good food for thought, though.

  35. BrianJ said

    Joe, #33: Apparently you also have Rob and I crossed “somewhere in [your] mind,” because it was I that asked for the reference. {smiling}

  36. m&m said

    I don’t think I made sense. Sorry.

  37. Michelle, thanks for those comments. I wholeheartedly agree with what you’re saying. Actually, as it turns out, those same missionaries just left my house. They stopped by for a couple of reasons, but we talked for quite a while about how to teach by the Spirit, about what it means to teach the person right in front of you, etc. In fact, we even talked about this verse from Jacob 1. But it was clear that they came over precisely because of what happened at the discussion yesterday. That is, the teaching that happened there was just as much for them as it was for the girl they were teaching: the Spirit accomplishes this work at many levels—many layers, as you say—at the same time.

    So I think your comment made perfect sense. I suppose I was putting things a little oversimplistically (for explanatory purposes? for sheer unthinkingness? the latter more likely) by trying to put it in terms of just the single person sitting in front of me. My point was to disrupt the thinking in which I focus on me. That disruption is not so much geared by a focus on one person, as it is on anyone/everyone else.

    In short: “They may very well need some of the truth and power that that young woman needs, although she is the convert-to-be and they are already members.” And I’m sure I need it just as much as any of them. But it is my duty to be focused on her (the convert to be) and them (the missionaries), not on myself. Does Christ’s atonement call others to teach me? Absolutely, but I can only think about that abstractly, because every call to me is a call to build up others—not myself.

    I think this is getting clearer.

  38. As for Brian…

    I guess I’m confused now. So was the phrase said by Rob Packer or Brian Millet? Help me out here. :)

  39. m&m said

    Joe, OK, at least I wasn’t completely out there in my effort to explain my thoughts. Now I would be interested in what you do with scriptures that talk about working out our OWN salvation with fear and trembling –how they fit into your thought patterns here. To me, this IS one of the levels that I need to be concerned about, personally, in addition to worrying about those I serve. One of the ways we do such work is precisely and clearly by serving others. Absolutely. But I do think there is more to it than that. I think we also “worry” about our salvation along the way — that is what drives us to change, to repent, to come to the Lord more in our lives. Service is a key way to do that, but sometimes our repentance is simply about how we are working out our own salvation, no? I think it’s a conglomeration of a lot of concepts all together that makes living the gospel make sense. At least to me. :)

  40. robf said

    Joe, to what do you attribute your change of heart on your mission? What was it that finally allowed you to get beyond your pride and thoughts about your own salvation?

  41. Michelle, I think we (meaning all of us in the Church) more closely at the threefold pattern of faith, hope, and charity. I really think there is something important at work in that short list (Elder Holland calls them “Moroni’s three promises: A cry for faith, hope, and charity”). Let me spell out some basic thoughts on the idea, and then let me answer your question according to that framework (I think this is the only way I can really approach the question).

    I’d like to say that faith is ultimately quite naive. But I don’t mean by that that it is childish or that it is ignorant. I simply mean that faith is geared by the purest and simplest motives: one is born with faith, and one grows up with faith. We believe or trust the people we are thrown in with, and we take their testimony on everything (as much the fact that there really was a Da Vinci as the fact that the Church is true). Faith is thus totally unselfish. In fact, we could say that the very question of selfhood does not arise in faith: we just go about living according to what we have been taught and what we therefore believe, trust, have faith in.

    At some point along the way, faith is called into question. We are presented with reasons to doubt what we have always simply believed, what we have always simply trusted to be true. There are so many different ways this can happen that it’s probably not worth trying to list them or even give examples. If we remain “faithful” even after faith has been called into question, we develop, I think, hope. The very word hope is fascinating theologically, because it implies unsurety and doubt. One does not hope if something is assured, if there are no reasons to believe that something will not happen or is not true. Faith develops into—perhaps is replaced by—hope. When we hope we begin to take things up critically, investigatively. We suddenly think about the world with a critical eye, though we hope that what we learned in faith holds true, etc. I think that most people live in hope (or, if they completely reject the faith of their childhood, in despair, nihilistically). And hope is ultimately quite selfish: I hope for things for me; and I necessarily worry about myself in things. Because I regard the world critically in hope, everything is measured against the standard of my own projected self (whether that is a hedonistic self or a “normal” self: it is still to measure the world against myself if I have internalized, say, the standards of the Church).

    But there is something beyond hope, a way of being which supersedes all of that: love or charity. In love, the questions and concerns that characterize hope are trumped. Better: they are reworked or reoriented entirely. If in hope I regarded the world critically, I now recognize that it is critical to regard my critical regard critically. That is, I call into question my own self-oriented gaze. In love, I hear the call of others, of the Other. In a sense, my faith is returned to me, but in a radically different way, and so is my hope. And I am completely selfless: everything I have or know is sacrificed to the Other, is given up in order to serve the other. The only judgment I know is the pain I feel when someone hurts or destroys the Other, this Other. Now, just like faith can replaced by hope or despair, so can hope/despair be replaced by love/charity or by something else: war. In fact, I’m more and more convinced that Nietzsche’s uebermensch is the parallel to the charitable person, though I’ve got more to think about there.

    Now, I’ve laid these out terribly. But it will have to do for now. What I see in these three ways of taking (or receiving) the world is a way of splitting up every “doctrine” or “idea” we have in the Church. For example, the word of wisdom: in faith, “Joseph Smith told me not to drink coffee, and if I obey I’ll be blessed”; in hope, “Joseph gave us this revelation a whole century before any scientific studies of health suggested he was right on”; in charity, “I want the blessings promised at the end of D&C 89 so that I have the clarity of mind, the wisdom, and the treasures of knowledge necessary to teach others and to build up the kingdom.” Examples could be multiplied.

    So how does this throw light on your question? I think “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling” is something that happens within the level of hope. It is “salvation” at the level of hope. Is it wrong? Heavens no! It is part of the plan, and I can never receive the gift of charity if I have not first worked out my salvation with fear and trembling. The saint who lives in faith does not work out his or her salvation with fear and trembling, but simply goes along with the flow. Fear and trembling imply the doubt and concern that attend hope: in hope, but for that very reason with fear and trembling, I work out my own salvation before God. But, at some point and if He sees fit, I hear the call of the Other, of others. And then I never fear nor tremble again (except when charity slips away from me and I return to hope), except as I fear and tremble for others.

    Thus, I have to confess that I hate the word “service” the way we usually use it in the Church (and I don’t know whether you used it this way or not). It is almost universally used from the perspective of hope, but as a way of explaining charity. And that, I think, doesn’t work. Hopeful service is not charity. Hopeful service is one part of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. But service is universal, while charity is particular. Service begins with me, but charity begins with the Other. Service is selfish, while charity is selfless. Etc.

    I hope this helps. I think I wrote it horribly. I’m sure I’ll have to reexplain this one.

  42. Rob, that’s a question I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately. I’ve pulled from my memory three events that all happened pretty close to each other, but I wonder what I’m not remembering about that change. Your question may just force me to pull my mission journals out of the closet tonight and see if I can’t track the very moment of the change down.

  43. robf said

    Thanks Joe, and your reply to Michelle helps me see how much of my own life I’ve wandered between faith and hope and only rarely achieved a modicum of charity. Is there also a faith and hope involved with letting go of one’s fear and trembling for self–to finally accept the Atonement once and for all–to enable him or her to love others without thought for self?

  44. m&m said

    OK, so Joe, do you see faith, hope and charity as sequential? (I don’t necessarily, or at least not completely, so I’m interested to see if that is what you are thinking.)

  45. m&m said

    ugh. That came across more abrupt than I wanted it to. Sorry. I see these three as interactive, although, of course, charity is the “greatest.” Faith and hope are a sort of chicken-egg thing, IMO. And the key to all is Christ, of course. I have found that charity in the end for me is more about Christ changing me than about me changing anything. And I see this as an ongoing process (read Elder Bednar’s pickle parable, for example). It is through faith and hope that we are freed to have charity, because we are able to lose selfish motives the more Christ changes us. But it’s only with faith and hope that that is possible. Perhaps you were saying that, but your description left them more separated in my mind. ??

  46. Joe Spencer said

    Michelle, I am here seeing them as relatively separated, but let me be clear (I should have pointed this out before) that I’m not here trying to lay out any kind of absolute theology, nor am I trying to interpret any passages in the scriptures that make mentions of these three. That is, I don’t think Moroni 7 understands faith, hope, and charity the way I’ve laid them out here. If I’m reading into anything in particular, it is just the meaning of the words, when they appear, say, in 1 Corinthians 13.

    So, yes, they are quite separated here (though I think, as Rob says, we move back and forth among them). But I do not think that “faith” is thus exclusionary of “hope” in the scriptures.

    Here’s the best way to explain it: I’m using scriptural language to think about three very different approaches to things (and I have to confess, I think these three ways—this overarching pattern—is present in scripture, though it may not correlate with faith, hope, and charity), but the “theology” here is entirely my own (or it is drawn from some texts, but put in the language of others). Would it be better for me to call them telestial, terrestrial, and celestial? Not really, but perhaps that opens some possibilities.

  47. Joe Spencer said

    Rob #43, isn’t that what the scriptures call having our “calling and election made sure“?

    It would be worth doing a number of posts on faith, hope, and charity in the scriptures. The several authors all have very different ways of understand the three. Hmmm….

  48. m&m said

    Hm. For me, Joe, the three degrees framework could possibly open up more in my mind and help me connect a bit more with what you are saying (although of course it still won’t match perfectly with scriptural interpretation, but seems to lend itself in my mind more to the progression model you are mulling over). FWIW. :)

  49. m&m said

    p.s. Joe, thanks for the clarification and your patience with my questions. :)

  50. BrianJ said

    I posted a while ago, summarizing a sister’s talk in sacrament meeting where she said that faith, hope, and charity were expressions of patience. I don’t think that her analysis is the final word, but I think it’s worth considering when answering Michele’s question, #44: “do you see faith, hope and charity as sequential?”

  51. teressa said

    Joe-I believe that you couldn’t have worked that diligently in the first part of your mission without some great motivation, and I don’t necessarily think that is was all from selfish motivations. The Lord takes us all line upon line and changes our way of thinking and the fiber of our hearts. The testimony you had in the beginning was something for which you were grateful and wanted to share with others. That gift from God was a beginning of your desire for missionary service. With that desire and with all the understanding you had you wholeheartedly worked with all you could muster. I can’t help belive that it was that wholeheartedness that was rewarded with the revelation that was given to you to be able to re-pent or think again in another direction and change your paradigm. My experience in learning to love comes from a little different direction. He is so loving that He will tailor his nature to fit each of our individual hearts. I always have found that His tender mercies make me never want to disappoint Him. I feel his joy so deeply in making me know that I am loved and valued. I feel that He is grieved if I turn away from His Spirit, and joyous in my seeking that Spirit and communion with Him. How can I turn away from someone like that? So—because He loved me first—-my heart is filled with love for Him. I have found that as I, with desire to help Him be happy with my presence in His life, know that He wants that presence in the life of each of His children. I try my best to please Him and to be my best for Him. In trying to do that I learn. I take that knowledge and use it and find new doors opening. Then suddenly I will come face to face with a door that will not budge. Every seeming impossible circumstance in my life causes me to ask Him to change my point of view, my thought processes, my paradigm, and somehow without fail He puts His aching heart for the hidden pains of others into mine. And I plead for mercy for them and strength to help. I have seen from each of those experiences how infinitely small my capacity to love is in comparison to His, and yet He takes whatever I have and blesses it with His love and gives me hope and courage to seek more. What more could we ask? What less can we give than all He has given us to please Him and bring the same joy to another soul, which is both a part of Him and a part of us as we seek to be One.

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