Putting Joy First

One of the reasons I loved my mission so much was that both of my Mission Presidents emphasized what I already believed about the purpose of a mission – both what it means to be a missionary and how that should direct missionary effort.

The foundation: I have believed a basic concept for as long as I can remember thinking about it. I have believed it from a very early age – even before I remember hearing anyone else articulate it. I finally found the perfect, concise expression of it in the following expression: “People do not believe what they see; they see what they believe.” (At least, that is how I remember it.)

The missionary application: I approached my mission as an attempt to find people who would accept our version of the Gospel when they heard it (who could catch a glimpse of the vision when it was presented to them) – or, I should say, who would not reject it when they began to hear it and refuse the chance to begin to see it. It wasn’t my job to try to convince them intellectually, but rather to touch them spiritually. Some people I met said, upon hearing various things we believe, “That’s crazy. You’re nuts. Mormonism really is a cult if you can believe that stuff.” Some said, “Say what? Whatever. I just don’t get it.” Others said, “I don’t get it, but I’d like to hear more.” Finally, a few said, “That’s exactly what I’ve always thought/felt!” Given what little time I had, my job wasn’t to convince the first two groups, but rather to find and encourage the latter two groups – to help them feel the motivating influence of the Holy Ghost.

That perspective led me to say, in essence, to everyone, “Follow what you feel – not what you think about it at first. Try it; you’ll like it.” If someone responded with strong negativity, my response basically was, “OK. I’ll find someone else.” They almost always spent more time and energy trying to convince me that I was wrong than I did trying to “convert” them. I was looking for a particular type of person – someone who was looking, first and foremost, for joy – either joy they lacked or more joy than they felt at the time. As I had experienced myself, once they found a core Gospel perspective that produced the joy they were seeking, they were able to wrap their minds around the theological and doctrinal details – the other “intellectual” stuff.

The choice: I believe you can tell more about people (both inside and outside the Church) by how they deal with the joy others find outside their own organization (or with differing perspectives that bring joy inside their own organization) than perhaps by any other criterion. One type of person lacks internal joy, constantly finds fault with the joy of others and actively seeks to undercut that joy; another type is secure in his joy and not interested in the differing joy of others; the final type accepts and embraces the idea that others have their own degree of joy – and tries to add to it (and, through it, add to her own joy) whenever possible. I don’t want to argue with the healthy and happy; I want to learn from them. I want to spend just as much of my time administering joy to the sick and searching.

The blogging observation: When I entered the world of blogging, I was struck immediately by two competing forms of discussion. The vast majority of those who participate in the corner of the Bloggernacle I frequent are sincerely searching for greater understanding and increased joy. Some of them, however, seem to be stuck in a cycle of trying to understand something intellectually before they can accept it spiritually. They seem to be saying, “I will accept this once I can understand it,” rather than, “This brings me joy, so I will do my best to accept and understand it – even if that means my understanding changes periodically, or regularly, or constantly over a long period of time.” They say, “My heart wants to accept this, but my mind keeps me from accepting it,” rather than, “My heart accepts this, so I will exercise my mind diligently to try to understand what I have accepted – knowing that that process might not end completely in this life, but I will continue to accept it regardless, because it brings me joy.”

The personal observation: I am joyful because I have chosen an outlook that brings me joy; I am at peace because I made the conscious choice from among many options. This peace and joy are not primarily intellectual. I still must exercise my mind constantly in order to understand and reconcile the issues with which I am faced daily, and I love to read the nuanced, intelligent and insightful perspectives of others, but I do so from the foundation of belief. I hear someone (anyone – inside or outside the Church) say something, and my first thought is not, “I don’t get it; it must be wrong,” but rather “How can I understand this in a way that is consistent with my understanding of the Gospel – in a way that will add to my joy?” In all seriousness, that approach has not let me down yet – particularly since I am willing to suspend disbelief when I’m not getting anywhere and revisit the issue when my mind has had time to rest and recuperate. Sometimes, what I consider to be a “full” understanding (meaning as close as I believe I will ever get to knowing fully) has taken years to achieve, and there are some questions that still sit untouched for a time while I refine my understanding of others. I’m fine with that.

The question: Why is this?

The answer: I know I am able to construct just about any intellectual justification I desire that will warrant just about any theological / philosophical / doctrinal construct I choose to accept. Given my ability to adapt a solid intellectual argument for whatever I desire to believe, I exercise my agency by focusing on what I desire to believe – what my heart and soul tells me it wants to believe – what brings me joy. I consider the options and make my choice. Again, since my brain is capable of justifying whatever choice I make, I pick my course (what kind of life I want to live), then I construct / adopt / assimilate the perspective that I feel will lead best to the end of that course.

The result: The only intellectual restriction I place on my mind is that whatever I devise must be consistent with the over-arching and under-pinning principles I hold central to my understanding of joy – in my terminology, the core principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand them. I have been accused of engaging in mental gymnastics, but I believe life is, in very real and powerful ways, an obstacle course. I believe everyone plays within their own gymnasium or on their own steeple chase course (jumps through their own intellectual hurdles – or stops and refuses to surmount them) in ways that look odd to others whose conclusions are different. I understand completely the concerns others express, but the joy I feel now is my own soul’s condition – what my heart/spirit has directed my mind/body to accept. I no longer feel joy; I have it – and it has me.

15 comments for “Putting Joy First

  1. I like that philosophy, but.

    1) There are other outside tests for intellectual theories that it overlooks, I think. In my field of applied science, I can tell when my theories are true by putting them to the test in my machinery, software, or larger systems, and seeing if they work. There IS actually an objective reality out there, and it’s more than just what we’ve convinced ourselves to believe. Quantum mechanics is true because lasers work, and diffraction gratings, and because rainbows can be seen in oil films floating on puddles of water. None of these phenomena are explained by classical physics. So if it appears I’m excessively hung up on this thing called “truth”, then that’s why. It’s the focus of my whole life, and I’m constantly wrestling with it. =)

    2) I do like your approach to missionary work. There’s no sense in trying to argue someone out of their beliefs, or tell them they’re wrong. I like the approach President Hinckley gave that we want to take what you know and add more to it, more light, more joy, more depth, or whatever. It seems to me that Mormonism is a sort of graduate school of religion. You’re welcome here no matter what discipline your undergraduate training. That seems to be something like what you’re saying.

  2. Yes. This works for me both from a missionary and personal perspective. I have a number of intellectual questions about the gospel that I am interested in and don’t have answers to that could, if I explained what those questions are, be seen as a major challenge to testimonies of people I attend Church with every week. I have impatience with short-sighted surface-oriented answers and historical white-wash.

    But I also accept that living the gospel makes my life better, even if I don’t understand (and won’t understand) exactly how that works. I know the Book of Mormon is “true,” even though I don’t understand what the Book of Mormon really is, or what “true” means. I know that praying on my knees every day makes my life work better. I know that involving myself in scriptures and the teachings of current and past leaders of the Church does as well. When I’m not doing those things, it’s easier to make stupid choices that hurt my soul.

    I’m not up to the point of lots of joy, but I’m getting more joy as I go. Understanding can come later, and I have faith that it will.

    It’s kinda weird, really, but it works. But you said it lots better. Very, very good stuff.

  3. Great stuff. Even though as a missionary sometimes you want to talk for hours and really convince them of the truth of the Gospel, it is ultimately a conversion they must experience themselves, just as we did. And being able to have a tiny part in planting a few seeds in God’s great plan to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man has brought me more joy than I deserve.

  4. Curtis,

    What do we do with self deception? Some find joy in drugs. It seems to me that while remaining compassionate, we should find fault with that.


    You can be the graduate school as long as you allow us Presbyterians to be the kindergarten.

  5. Great post, thanks! The missionary application is wonderful, and the whole post reminds me of a Seventy who spoke at a District Conference I attended while on my mission and said “I know the church is true because it makes me happy.”

  6. “Some find joy in drugs”

    I think we need some new language. It isn’t only joy, but a particular kind of soul-expanding joy that we seek – something closely related to truth.

    Clearly, it is possible to experience kinds of joy that have nothing to do with the joy experienced by those who are drawing nearer to God.
    Just as one instance, we have to deal with this in 3 Nep:

    “But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have __joy__ in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh…”

    We say that wickedness never was happiness, and that is undeniably true. However, wickedness can be a lot of fun, and brings feelings that are like happiness, or could be said to be a kind of happiness. There is this problem with many words that we use to describe the blessings of becoming right with God. Think about the word ‘peace.’ Peace is certainly a fruit of the Spirit and gospel living. But Jesus said that there was a kind of peace ‘that the world giveth’ that is something else again. The fruits of righteous living are cewrtainly ‘delightful’ – but, then, the Laminites took ‘delight’ in the shedding of blood.’ Even the word love has these same kinds of problems. So, I think we need to be suspicious of whatever only tells us to ‘follow our bliss.’ My bliss leads me right to what I ought not do, as often as not.


  7. Thomas,

    I would agree that true joy or true happiness can’t be found in drugs. My concern is over self deception. This, it seems to me, points to a place for objective analysis of what others report. Your quotation from 3 Nep seems to point to the same need. Since things built upon the works of men or the works of the devil may bring a seasonal joy, we need something objective to distinguish that joy from the joy built upon the gospel.

  8. I agree completely that “joy” can mean different things to different people – and that my definition of joy excludes, for me, competing definitions that I can’t accept. However, unless and until someone else gets touched by the type of joy I feel, there is little chance they will alter or reject their competing definition to embrace mine. Generally, they simply will bring out their intellectual / mental justification to battle mine – strengthening each through sheer repetition. Also, it’s hard for a drug addict to quit if he doesn’t believe there is a better version of joy available and, more importantly, attainable to a “sinner like me.”

    My biggest concern is that we not automatically reject the reality of the joy that many people feel outside of the Restored Gospel – or outside of Christianity – or outside of organized religion – or outside of “spirituality” as defined by the religious. It’s too easy to get arrogant within the bubble of our own joy – and I don’t want to become a Mormon version of the intolerant Christians who killed and harassed my ancestors – and who, by and large, still condemn all who find their joy in different ways / expressions to Hell.

  9. Craig, I think *as individuals* we need that objectivity, and I think we find it in the whisperings of the Spirit and the miraculous events we feel. However, at the most basic, root level, we still experience those things as individuals.

    Think about General Conference. I do not want to turn this into a discussion of any particular talk, because the same holds true in Sacrament Meeting, Stake Conference and the temple. Two people, even endowed members, can sit side-by-side in the same meeting/presentation and walk away with completely different messages – each thinking that the speaker was talking directly to them. That is wonderful and fascinating and exhilarating to me – but it also points directly to the ultimate subjectivity of our spiritual experiences – and the need to avoid discounting what others feel and the “inspiration” they cite to explain their feelings.

    In the case of drugs, I will never argue against or belittle the “joy” they bring to some people. Rejecting it as not “really” joy is counterproductive and incorrect. For them, in that moment, they are happy – usually happier than they are without the drugs. The key is to find a spark of desire for a different joy.

  10. Curtis,

    Permit me a small example. Many years ago my aunt fell from a balcony and severely damaged her spinal chord. As you can imagine, we all prayed. After much prayer, my grandma was convinced that my aunt would be healed and walk again. This belief gave her great joy. I can still remember her enthusiasm in telling me my aunt would walk again. My aunt never walked again. Some might criticize my grandma. They might say that her false expectation made it more difficult for my aunt to accept the objective and painful reality of her accident. I’m hesitant to criticize. My grandma’s joy was a joy in God. Her joy, in a way, put her ahead of her critics. On this, I think we agree. Yet, there remains the objective reality that my aunt lost the use of her legs. Here, it seems to me, there is a place for someone who is further along in joy than my grandma to refine joy with painful reality.

  11. No argument there, Craig. I initially titled this post “Journeying in Joy” to connote exactly the idea that finding joy is a never-ending journey. I had to shorten it greatly in order to keep it to the brevity (*grin*) of this post.

    Joy unrefined by reality is not the type of joy I want; in fact, the deeper aspect of finding joy within the pain and struggle of life is the central theme of my next post – the other side of the full coin, if you will. (How’s that for a shameless tease?)

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