Monday, February 4, 2013

Commandments to Help Us Change

What do you think of when someone starts talking about commandments? Ancient religion, perhaps? Of Moses carrying stone tablets off Mount Sinai or Pharisees squabbling over how many steps constitute a broken Sabbath? Does the projector in your mind play a scene from a life with a lot of parted hair, Jello desserts and time at home while everyone else is out having fun? Maybe hearing about commandments triggers a mental lecture you've given yourself at least ten thousand times or a dismissive rejection of what is only for the 'goodies' or what you feel you're already doing well enough already.

It shouldn't be a surprise that this post is going to be in favor of commandments. It may also be helpful to know that I have no intention of making anyone feel guilty. The truth is, my perception of what commandments are, and what living them looks like, would conjure up images like I mentioned above. Despite the best efforts of Sunday School teachers and religion classes, something about commandments just seems so Old Testament.

Over the last several years my perception has been changing, however. I've found that personal experiences and evidence in the scriptures can create a paradigm shift that allows us to see commandments as timeless, even modern or 'ahead of their time', and as patterns of good sense and a healthy, enjoyable lifestyle. I'll share at least some of what I mean by discussing two seemingly unrelated commandments: tithing and forgiving others.

One thing I've learned about commandments is that they're seldom really about the outward action. Take tithing. We've all read Malachi 3:10:

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

The Lord has tithed his people in every dispensation. If you think for a moment about why, several logical answers come immediately to mind. Money from tithing supports the work-- it builds temples, subsidizes missionary efforts and protects the Church from the crippling effects of debt. The faith required to pay tithing strengthens the members and their commitment to the Church. Tithing also provides an opportunity for us to 'prove' that the Lord will keep his promises.

All of these are very good answers and our lives are surely blessed by stronger faith, buildings where we can meet and worship, and a testimony of God's integrity and consistency. Yet, at least in my own mind, there is an even better reason for tithing: the gift of giving.

I like the quote from Winston Churchill: 'We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give'. Everybody has someone in their lives that they would say is a 'giver'. In every way and through every day, these people give their time and talents to help those around them. Givers are generally cheerful, optimistic, and uplifting just to be around.

You also probably know someone that might be labeled a 'taker'. Even the mention of someone who is a taker makes most of us groan or sigh inside. You know who you'd rather be like and how you'd rather been seen by others: we want to be givers.

Arthur Brooks is an economist that has written several books on giving and happiness. One of his studies found that those who give more get more-- in that order. He explained in a speech given in 2009 that I highly recommend to everyone:

Specifically, here’s what I found. If you have two families that are exactly identical—in other words, same religion, same race, same number of kids, same town, same level of education, and everything’s the same—except that one family gives a hundred dollars more to charity than the second family, then the giving family will earn on average $375 more in income than the nongiving family—and that’s statistically attributable to the gift.

In addition, Brooks mentions other studies showing that people who give to charity are 43 percent more likely than people who don't give to say they're very happy people.  People who see others-- even strangers-- giving charitably see leadership qualities in the giver and almost cannot help themselves but to follow. Givers are more productive, have better health and are better citizens. They're better company in social situations and more likely to be promoted in business situations. It goes on and on.

The Lord doesn't need our money. He's much more interested in our exaltation and salvation (Moses 1:39). Tithing given willingly and selflessly changes our hearts. It helps us become like the 'givers' toward whom we all gravitate and around whom we are all uplifted. As our natures change-- as we become happier and more productive-- we will also be more successful. We will be able to achieve and have so much more than we otherwise could've it may seem there are blessings overflowing and pouring down from the windows of heaven. It doesn't get much more modern or more practical than that: giving is a strategy for prosperity.

There are many reasons to pay tithing. We are commanded to pay tithing, at least in part, because it changes who we are and prepares us to return to our Heavenly Father.

A second example that has shifted how I see commandments can be seen in the command to 'forgive all men'. The Lord directed Peter to forgive those that offend him, 'until seventy times seven', or as often as he is offended.

I learned a lot about forgiveness from James Rasband, the former dean of the law school at Brigham Young University. In October 2012, he explained to a group of students and faculty:

Why is it that we sometimes have trouble accepting the Atonement as recompense for the harms we suffer at others' hands? My experience is that we can sometimes forget that the Atonement has two sides. Usually, when we think about the Atonement we focus on how mercy can satisfy the demands that justice would impose upon us. We are typically quicker to accept the idea that when we sin and make mistakes the Atonement is available to pay our debts.

Forgiveness requires us to consider the other side of the Atonement--a side that we don't think about as often but that is equally critical. That side is the Atonement's power to satisfy our demands of justice against others, to fulfill our rights to restitution and being made whole... It heals us not only from the guilt we suffer when we sin, but it also heals us from the sins and hurts of others.

When others cause us harm, they take something from us that isn't theirs to take. It may be a physical item like a book or a borrowed shovel, but more often it is the peace in our lives, an opportunity for faith or inspiration, or time spent in worry or grief that could've otherwise been used to build relationships or provide for our families. Justice demands restitution.

A repentant offender may do all they can to restore what they have taken. Despite the best intentions, we all know from experience that sometimes an apology just doesn't make everything okay. Sometimes there is nothing that we can do to return what was lost.

And sometimes others hurt us on purpose. Sometimes others inject our lives with tragedy-- a broken heart or a broken home or the death of a family member-- and sometimes they're not sorry. Mercy requires that there be another way to make us whole again.

Forgiveness does not require us to give up our right to restitution. Mercy cannot rob justice. Forgiveness simply requires that we look to a different source to be made whole again. Though the offender may not have the ability or the desire to compensate us for what they have done to hurt us, the Atonement of Jesus Christ has the power to restore all that has been taken away from us. All that is asked of us is to have the faith to accept the restitution offered to us in this way.

The Lord taught, 'he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin' (D&C 64:9). Sin is a separation of man from God. When we refuse to forgive, we reject the Atonement that has satisfied the demands of justice for the offender as well for ourselves. We cut ourselves off from the mercy of God while, in a metaphorical sense, turning down the full payment on car repairs after an accident because the money is coming from an insurer rather than the driver of the other vehicle. Unable to meet the demands of justice without the Atonement in our lives, we are separated from God and unable to make further progress toward our ultimate goal of returning to live with Him.

Viewed in this way, the commandment to forgive becomes practical, common sense. It may still be difficult, but when applied in our lives we will be happier, healthier and more successful. Saying it that way almost makes it sound too good to be true, maybe even deserving of an infomercial, but my experience has been that it is really true. When I have forgiven others, particularly others who have committed the most grievous offenses against me, my life has been richer and more satisfying because the Lord has made me whole again. I have found greater joy because the process of forgiving others has helped me to become a better, more Christlike person with an enhance relationship with the divine and a larger capacity for compassion, empathy and happiness.

As my eyes are opened to what commandments really are and how they really can change my life, they're suddenly not just for the Old Testament anymore. They become practical, tangible solutions to life's problems and provide enormous aid toward my life goals. Like taking money advice from a very wealthy person, commandments are life advice from the God who created life, who created the plan of happiness, and who has journeyed to the summit of life and wants to tell us how to get there.

What is true of tithing and forgiveness is true of all other commandments. Consider for a moment how the discipline that comes with a sincere fast might change who we are and what we can accomplish. What humility or confidence might we gain from using the Sabbath to serve others? Researchers have begun compiling study after study reporting how our lives would be better if we consumed less violence, profanity and sexuality in the media. Other studies show the many benefits of learning patience, getting out of debt and learning to save money for the things we need and want.

Commandments, when adhered, take the person that we are and turn us into the more successful person we can become. They develop skills and traits and relationships that unite us with God and make us leaders among our peers. They build our faith and restore what we lose along life's journey. And yes, when we obey the commandments we may often find ourselves in places with a lot of parted hair and every kind of Jello dessert. The truth is, nothing could make us happier.

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