If I was an investigator of the Jewish church, in Jesus time, and I had as my example Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes, I might have been extremely resistant to joining up. The Pharisees certainly never appear to be peaceful and happy. They were judgmental and preoccupied with others, rather than themselves—in a negative way. I certainly would not have been willing to count my steps on Sundays or avoid pork simply because some God commanded it if…their sour-faced life was the result.
I sometimes can’t figure out why the Pharisees stayed converted to their own version (because it was certainly of their creation) of Judaism. The only thing I can determine is that they stayed faithful out of fear. And, it was fear they passed on to others. Fear of breaking a commandment. So much did fear guide their actions that they passed it on to others—judgmentally. Everyone was doomed in their eyes…even Christ.
And, because the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes led the religion, (and their principles), it was dying out. Israel had been conquered and scattered and would have continued to dwindle had not Christ come to fulfill the law and restore the truths that had been lost. Fear does not convert people to God. It only keeps them afraid. And obeying out of fear, ultimately, cannot produce salvation.
So, why do people choose a religion? Why do people convert? Why do people stay faithful? Why do people come back to God?
I think I can sum it up in two words: happiness.
2 Nephi 2:25 teaches us that “men are that they might have joy.” So, are we so surprised that the reason we seek God, or religion, is because we believe it will bring us happiness? No. And, the gospel of Jesus Christ is about happiness. It is not about temporary, fleeting excitement. It is not about intense, dizzying highs followed by horrific lows. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about peace, happiness, and continual joy.
But, are you happy? Are you peaceful? Do you experience joy despite the struggles of life? If not, why? Why aren’t you happy?
Happiness is Personal Peace
When most of us think of happiness, we think of the absence of trials, struggles, pain, suffering, sorrow, etc. And yet, God has shown us that joy can only come from opposition (2 Nephi 2:11). If there is no down there can be no up. If there is no sorrow there can be no happiness. This life is about the ups and the downs. The triumphs and the sins, and the weaknesses, and the mistakes (Ether 12:27). The gospel of Jesus Christ is about finding peace in knowing the downs are part of the ups and that ultimately Christ has overcome all of the downs. The ups become precious because of the downs. We become godly during the downs.
Now we come back to the Pharisees. They made the gospel about fear. Fear of making mistakes. When instead they should have preached the hope of overcoming them. They made the gospel about lines, boundaries, and achievement. When instead they should have preached the destination of godliness. Because ultimately there are no lines. There is only becoming godly. There are commandments, but they are practice in becoming godly, not an end unto themselves. The Pharisees, out of fear, made the commandments and end unto themselves.
Nothing, in the gospel, has a beginning or end, save in Christ. If we give it another beginning or end, apart from Christ, it will cease to belong to Him. When it has a beginning or end in anything else it becomes the gospel of that thing or person. Grace is not about not sinning. It’s about becoming godly as we learn from sins and mistakes. And so forth.
Personal peace comes from knowing we can do it, we can make it, despite our struggles, sins, weaknesses, and so forth. And when we say that, so many pharisaical people want to freak out. They’re so afraid that if we tell people that, that those people will stop keeping commandments and staying away from those lines. Again…they’re so afraid. And so they can’t be happy. And they can’t let others be happy, or peaceful.
Problems with the Rising Generation
I was pondering this blog post when the memory of the Olive Tree Allegory came into my mind from Jacob 5. You know, that chapter everyone dreads reading because they’re so worried that it has 70+ verses rather than what’s in it?
In the Olive Tree Allegory we always have the Lord of the vineyard grafting branches in and grafting braches out. Pruning branches off and dunging and aerating the roots. And, it’s always about the roots and the branches. Either the roots go bad or the branches overcome the good of the roots.
As I was staring out a window, watching the highway go by, a principle jumped into my head. The roots of the gospel are: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the ordinances and covenants that follow. All of these things are centered in Christ. The branches of the gospel are the commandments and the organization put in place to keep the roots healthy. When the branches overcome the roots, the tree (person, family, ward, stake, region, area, etc.) gets sick. If the tree stays sick too long then the roots get ruined.
The gospel ceases to be the gospel if we let the branches overcome the roots. The roots can become corrupted if we allow in false doctrine. But usually, the problem with long-term religious culture (like the Pharisees) in our homes is that we start focusing on the branches without tending to the roots. We start making the gospel about fear instead of happiness.
Oh, we may preach happiness and peace, but that doesn’t equivocate. It must also be a part of us. It must show in our lives. We can say going to church will make us happy, but if we go to church and then are not happy, what are we really teaching? It’s something different than what we’re saying.
Branches Overcoming the Roots
It’s easy for this to happen when you get past the first generation of converts to a religion. The original crew is usually converted. They get the foundation of the gospel because they depended upon it so heavily in their conversion. Thereafter, however, to children and posterity, the gospel becomes something it is not—it becomes a tradition. It becomes a system of do’s and don’ts rather than a framework for joy, peace, strength, healing, and happiness. It becomes a set of lines and rules and lectures about negative consequences instead of tools and paths for the greatest amounts of joy, peace, strength, healing, and happiness.
The culture of religion so often preaches that happiness can only be had from a strict regimen of religious ritual and participation but fails to continue on to explain the doctrine WHY. Happiness can be found in lesser amounts in less strict religious observance. It can. And when it does, we appear as liars and control freaks determined to force our children into a life they can’t see the benefit of. A life they don’t yet believe in.
God doesn’t want our obedience and our devotion to His gospel and His plan out of fear, awe, and reverence. Those are mildly important. What He wants is our obedience and our devotion out of love for Him. Love that stems from an understanding of what He offers, what He gives, how He loves, and who He is. That is the kind of understanding that creates a visible peace and happiness in us that transcends life’s struggles and problems. That is the kind of example others, especially our kids, need to see. If they can’t see what it is to be truly at peace, to experience true joy, and to know a fullness of happiness, how can they desire it? How can they see that it’s not worth it to settle for less?
The Pharisees (and the others), as nearly as I can tell from scripture always seemed to be unhappy. They were so caught up in the details of not crossing the wrong lines and not appearing evil that they had room for little else, aside from pride. They were so stressed and preoccupied with building fences around fences to prevent themselves (and others) from sinning that they sinned worse than if they had crossed those lines. They omitted love, mercy, and righteous judgment (Luke 11:42). They were absolutely miserable. The only happiness they seemed to get was from judging others by their over-zealous piety and righteous data. And, that’s not real happiness.
In the Book of Mormon we have the story of the people of King Benjamin. They extol Benjamin as an incredible king. They listen to his final sermons and have magnificent changes of heart, covenanting to follow Christ and take upon them His name. Then, as always happens throughout the Book of Mormon when there has been a great Christian revival, the rising generation doesn’t become converted, or doesn’t remain converted (Mosiah 26:1).
Obviously, even our children, our responsible for acting upon righteous principles and gaining their own conversion to the gospel. But, it’s highly important that they know what the gospel is and not just the rules, lines, and commandments. The gospel is the atonement of Jesus Christ. All else stems from it. From His love. From His plan of happiness.
We Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Teach the Gospel of Happiness
Now, I’m not saying parents have to be perfect and that as families we can’t have struggles. Life is hard for everyone. But, to some extent, there are those who preach the gospel and yet create toxicity surrounding it. They don’t embody the godly characteristics (to any great extent) that they keep preaching to their kids. They pound into their kids heads that if they read and pray and keep all the commandments that they’ll have the Spirit and be happy. And yet, these kids see parents who do all these things and yet are rarely, if ever, happy. They see parents preoccupied with commandments, not doctrines. They see family going through righteous motions but not becoming happier or more Christlike. And that’s because that’s what’s really happening! They aren’t progressing. They are tripping and stumbling over major stumbling blocks, just like the Pharisees.
Now, one or more parents or family members may struggle with keeping the commandments. And yet, this also should not create crisis. The gospel is the atonement. The principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ can be lived and taught in any home even with varying levels of belief and testimony. The atonement is mercy, forgiveness, patience, long-suffering, etc. Even with family members who lack righteous consistency, or who sometimes fail to say a kind word, peace can abide. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying it doesn’t take heroic effort. I’m saying it’s possible. That’s what the gospel should provide. That’s what people, especially our kids, should see. The gospel should be lived so that our kids can see that despite weaknesses, struggles, and differing levels of testimony, the basic principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ can abide. And that those principles are what create peace, joy, love, and happiness.
If we preach forgiveness and mercy to our kids. Then we have to show it to them and our spouses. If we preach that keeping the commandments makes us peaceful and gives us strength to find happiness. Then, we have to show it. And, if we fall short a bit in showing what we know to be true, then we have to be open, communicate and bear testimony of the hope and faith we have in Christ despite our shortcomings. We have to frequently, outwardly, and honestly show the gospel of Jesus Christ working in our lives. Our imperfections are what give us the opportunity to show our children that the gospel works! We should not pretend to be perfect when our kids are smart enough to know we’re not.
I was sitting in Relief Society one day, and a woman said, “If we were perfect our kids would never learn anything about the atonement of Jesus Christ.”
I was floored. I had been feeling so miserable that day for my failings as a mother. Then, here this woman brings me back to the gospel. I have worked hard to focus my efforts as a mother into using my own failings to teach my kids more about the atonement. I am also trying to get better, and not mess up as much, but I know that as long as I keep trying, I can have peace. I want so much for my kids to see this and to never despair. I want to show them the happiness and peace that comes from God’s grace. I want them to feel the faith I have and to be infected with it as they face their own weaknesses, sins, and struggles. I want them to see that for me it is a gospel of happiness and peace.
So, is the gospel a gospel of happiness and peace for you? If it’s not, it’s time to get back to the roots. It’s time to make it a gospel of happiness and not a gospel of fear.