The Macho Interpretation

In priesthood meeting a couple of weeks ago we discussed fasting and prayer and how long you need to fast or pray for it to be effective. It occurred to me then that many male members of the Church have a tendency to approach spiritual isssues like this as a macho exercise.

Perhaps the best example of what I mean is a male reaction that I’ve often seen to the story of Enos in the Book of Mormon. As most Mormons know, Enos prayed all day and all night to get an answer to his prayers. For many men, this is like a challenge. It implies that if they pray long enough or more intently than Enos, they will get an answer to their prayers. Spirituality thus becomes a feat of strength or endurance–perhaps even a sport. All they have to do is outperform Enos.

It isn’t just prayer, or Enos’ example that leads to this reaction. Missionary life sometimes becomes more competition than catechism. And I’ll bet more than one Elders Quorum President has thought that if he could only make home teaching some kind of competition…

Its a little hard to know how to respond to this enthusiasm when it surfaces. I hate to discourage anyone from putting positive effort toward the gospel, even if it is misguided. But, on the other hand, this approach might put the participant on the road to failure and confusion. And if the person taking this approach has already misinterpreted the spiritual as sport, how will he interpret failure?

I don’t mean to imply that this happens often. It only happens some times. But for other men out there, I think this is something we should be aware of, and perhaps give some thought. Its easy to drop into the mode of a macho interpretation of the gospel.

[Now perhaps someone else can weigh in on what the feminine interpretation of the gospel is like?]

25 comments for “The Macho Interpretation

  1. Jesus was the most macho of all — he fasted and prayed for 40 days.

    But more seriously, I have often pondered the issue of competition — is it is good thing or a bad thing? Competition that results in macho chest-pounding is not a good thing, but how about competition that results in people pushing themselves in a desire for self-improvement? Sometimes we cannot push ourselves to greater achievements without comparing ourselves to others.

  2. President Benson discussed this a little in his “Beware of Pride” talk.
    From the talk:
    The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”

  3. But this is something taught by the General Authorities today. In Aug 2009 Ensign is an article on Elder Neil Anderson, by Elder Christofferson. In it is mentioned a time when Elder Anderson, then in the 70, went to Pres Faust with a problem. Pres Faust told him to pray all night about it, like Enos did.

    So, perhaps spirituality IS a macho thing?

  4. Competition is capitalist. non-competition is non-capitalist. I think that should seal the deal for most American Mormons. :)

  5. Funny you should bring this up, and about fasting, too. A guy in our ward gave a talk on fasting a couple of weeks ago. This particular guy is into martial arts. The focus of the talk was how fasting inspired him because it was a physical challenge. The more he fasted, the more he felt like he was overcoming the natural man. It was a way for him to mortify his flesh, so to speak. But it was all in the context of it being a competition (with himself). He never once mentioned fasting in the context of it being a joyful act. (Then again, I suppose one could make a competition out of feeling joy, too.)

  6. As with most things, the key lies in our intent and motive. If we seek to defeat or outperform someone else, we are missing the mark. On the other hand, sincere intent to improve (and this includes repentance) creates a better world for all. Competition itself isn’t bad, but an overt focus on competition is counterproductive.

    To answer Kent’s question, I think someone who fails in trying to “outperform Enos” would think that if he grits his teeth a little more, it might work out next time. A change of heart and motive would be a more Christlike approach, as well as more effective in the long-term.

  7. I think you’re on to something. Competition at some level is normal and there’s nothing wrong with hooking in to it for incentive — measuring your effort today aganst your effort last week to be sure you aren’t backsliding, for instance.

    But too much competition? I think this is one reason sister missionaries often have such a hard time with elders and with mission leadership, when everything is couched in terms of war and sports and crushing and beating and triumphing. Sisters just don’t often think of teaching the gospel as a way of beating your enemies, and don’t tend to think that chest bumping is an appropriate way to celebrate a baptism.

  8. “I hate to discourage anyone from putting positive effort toward the gospel, even if it is misguided.”

    Are you sure that misguided effort actually is positive effort?

  9. I think this is somewhat misinterpreted. The competition is not some sort of spar or combat or wil, intellect, or whatever. Men and women alike engage in competitive behavior in striving for any personal goal or achievement.

    One should make the distinction between the internal struggles to attain potential and the macho interpretation that competition=anything you can do, I can do better.

    If it weren’t so, sport must be evil. And capitalist. Which is another word for evil.

  10. My mission was saturated with sports analogies. It always made me uncomfortable, partly because I never really liked sports, but also because numbers always become the focus.

    That being said I think it is a very fine line between persuading missionaries that their efforts matter and will be rewarded and getting seduced into in this competitive attitude.

  11. I had the blessing of having two different mission presidents, as out mission was split in two after my first year in Japan. This was in 1970 when the number of missionaries sent to Japan was growing, and before Africa and the Former Soviet Union were opened to missionary work.

    My first mission president had made his living as a salesman, and his management style reflected the way he led his sales force, including asking everyone to set high goals for numbers of baptisms and Books of Mormon sold, and the monthly mission magazine featured the top baptizers.

    My second mission president was a university professor of Geography, who was very conscious of the role of the mission experience in the larger education and development of young men and women, and a Japanese-American who was concerned about teaching us to love the members and the people we taught. He was also conscious of the fact that many of the missionaries he led had been transferred just before the mission split because they had not got along well with the first mission president. (When we had missionary conferences, the breakfast conversation always included “Why I was transferred to the new mission”.)

    The things that can be easily measured and turned into numbers that could be compared, averaged and projected are not the things that the Lord calls missionaries to do in the scriptures. Numbers are just a part of what needs to be included in an evaluation of the health of any aspect of the Church. To be obsessed with the numbers, though, is to take our attention away from God, whom we are commanded to focus upon.

    Centering our thoughts and desires on our own efforts, in competition with others, is to deviate from God’s program. God told Moroni that he gives us weaknesses so that we will learn to achieve strength through faithful dependence on God, rather than solely on our own abilities. Yes, I recognize that “depending on God” can also be distorted into a contest, but “faithful dependence” means putting our all into the work, while understanding that we can only accomplish it because God works with us. If we are successful in baptizing people, the first thing we should do is to give the glory to God, not to ourselves. And we are just as motivated to help another missionary find and teach comeone as we would be to do it ourselves.

    Our reward is not being called to higher profile positions of responsibility and authority in the Church. Being called is an opportunity to serve, not a reflection of a positive balance in our heavenly 401K. As King Benjamin made clear, we are always in God’s debt. The blessings that come to the humble and faithful flow without compulsory means.

  12. Tons of well-intentioned Elders in my mission decided that every once in a while, fasting for the commanded 24 hours wasn’t enough of a sacrifice. They had a better idea than God. 48 hours!

    I tried putting them in their places, but they would have none of it. They were sure that God could not be more pleased with their self-flagellation, er … sacrifice.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to go bench press a bus with the power of the priesthood.

  13. I really like your thoughts, Kent. Regarding the question of what to do when people who do gospel-related stuff for reasons of competition, I wonder if this could be compared to when we do gospel-related stuff for other impure motives. I’ve never been a big fan of competitive-type approaches, simply because I tend to lose, but I wonder how different it is from my, say, going to church or doing service more as a social than a spiritual activity.

    But too much competition? I think this is one reason sister missionaries often have such a hard time with elders and with mission leadership, when everything is couched in terms of war and sports and crushing and beating and triumphing.

    Great point, Ardis. I wasn’t a big fan of this either, so it probably turns off at least a subset of the elders as well. Of course, it’s usually the more competitive of the elders who get into mission leadership, so there’s not much to be done to stop it.

  14. Since I don’t think anyone here has advocated the macho model of fasting, I won’t beat that dead horse.

    No fast is complete without an offering. The purpose of the offering is to relieve the sufferings of the poor.

    I suggest fasting is supposed to be a model of the Atonement, where we take upon ourselves the sufferings of the poor so theirs are diminished. Thus, it is sufficient to fast long enough to appreciate those sufferings.

    Obviously fasting one meal is the minimum. I think it is rarely prudent to fast more than two meals. My opinion only, but I note that it reflects the instructions I received as a missionary.

  15. Of course, you can take it in the other direction, too. Several of my friends and I at BYU would engage in what we called “30-second air fasts.” Yep, we held our breath and called it a “fast.”

  16. It seems that women in my ward approach the gospel not with competition, but with abject humility.

    Every comment in RS begins with “I am so far from perfect, but…” or “I do so many things wrong, but…” and then they proceed with their gospel insight. It seems like there is a point where humility becomes anti-humility. “I am so much worse than everyone in here” is a statement that they are neither qualified to make nor ought to share. There are many paths we take and many correct decisions that work for one and not for another. I wish sometimes that some of the guilt–for an unorganized house, disobedient child, tardy church attendance, 85% visiting teaching, and spotty FHE occurrence–would get filtered out of these RS sisters before it comes out of their mouths.

  17. I want to reply to some of the comments individually later, but I think I’ve somehow not communicated effectively an important issue here:

    Not only is it not about competition, its also not about numbers.

    Part of problem with the attitude I see isn’t just that it views these ordinances or practices as competition with others, or with Enos, or even with self, its that it sees “more” or “more intense” as better.

    Fasting more isn’t necessarily better than fasting. We should fast as long as is needed to, as Vader suggests, accomplish the purpose of fasting. Likewise, we should pray as long as we need to pray to effectively communicate with our Father. Praying longer than that is like keeping someone on the phone after the purpose of the conversation is complete–all you can do is annoy the other party.

    But, more than this, the point here is that some of us (and I suspect most men subconciously have this initial reaction) see what we have to do through this macho view, thinking that if we just increase the quantity or the quality, we will be more righteous, or the result will be better.

    More quantity or better quality isn’t always more righteous.

  18. If it becomes about ones’ ego, then they are operating from a point of pride rather than humility, and it seems that humility is the key in fasting before the Lord.

  19. Geoff B (1): I don’t think we want to say that competition is bad per se. As I suggest above, its not just competition, although competition is certainly one aspect of the macho view. I’m only trying to suggest that interpreting gospel principles as a competition, or as numbers, or through other macho views, isn’t always correct.

    Tim (2): Yes, pride is part of this. But even if we look at praying all night and all day and do it without pride, I still don’t think its what was meant.

    Rameumptom (3): The quote you seem to be talking about is:

    “One time I went to President Faust with a piercing problem I didn’t know how to solve,” Elder Andersen recalls. “He said to me, ‘Neil, have you prayed about it? Have you prayed all night like Enos did?’ And then he sat back in his chair and said, ‘I’ve prayed all night many times to receive the answer to difficult challenges. That is how you will get your answer as well.’ He was right.”

    But I’m not sure that this means that a greater quantity of prayer or praying for a longer time is more effective. It sounds more like what he is saying was that some issues require more time to figure out. Once you’ve prayed enough about an issue, its enough. But, I do get that some problems might require an all-night approach.

  20. Dan (4): “Competition is capitalist. non-competition is non-capitalist.”

    And religion is about politics…

    Somehow, this view seems too simplistic. I don’t think competition is always capitalist, nor do I think that all religious principles correspond to political principles.

    And, like it or not, sometimes this macho viewpoint of gospel principles is actually correct. I just don’t think it is in the case of prayer and fasting (at least not most of the time).

  21. It seems that women in my ward approach the gospel not with competition, but with abject humility.

    Are you sure they aren’t competing to be the most abjectly humble?

  22. Church sports competitions have become much less formal than they were in my youth. Orson Scott Card wrote a long essay a few years back about what he saw as the exaltation of Church basketball above other measures of a brother’s faithfulness.

    Along with deemphasizing competition in church recreation, I also appreciate the reform of church finances, which has taken pressure off wards to compete with each other for grandiose youth activities and in other ways.

    Then there is the more restricted competition, which Card also discusses, in declaring the degrees of separation between oneself and a General Authority, as if one can inherit a Celestial mansion from your GA grandfather. This is not a comment on GAs who are related to other GAs, but more on those who lack their own distinguished record of Church service but try to make up for it by basking in the reflected glory of their relatives.

  23. Fasting and prayer are staples in the Church. They really are the “first principles” upon which everything else is based. The 1st Article of Faith says the first principles are faith and repentance, but faith is nothing without fasting and prayer.

    Some will say fasting and prayer are manifestations or expressions of faith, but that seems back to front to me.

    A person who is fasting and praying “mightily” (like Enos) is a person who is questioning, wondering, and doubting, not a person who is acting with confidence and “knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt” as the word “faith” suggests.

    When you HAVE the answers, you don’t bother fasting and your prayers are pretty much rote repetition said out of duty and habit.

    When you DON’T have the answers, you pray all night, as did Enos, and you deprive yourself of the comforts of food and drink, somehow trying to reduce the mortal body’s interference with receiving the inspiration and revelation from the spiritual realm.

    Those who claim to “know” (“Women Who Know” ala Sister Beck) feel they have earned their knowledge of spiritual things by “paying the price”, just as an athlete feels they have earned their superior athletic ability by the hard work and training to which they have subjected their bodies.

    Thus, along with the metaphor of “building spiritual muscles” comes the metaphor of a sense in which spirituality (and righteousness) are a competition, and life is “the spiritual olympiad”!

    This myth persists in the perception that the Church hierarchy is also a spirituality/righteousness hierarchy, with the most righteous and spiritual on the top, and everyone else at varying lesser degrees of spirituality beneath: GAs are more spiritual than Stake Presidents and Mission Presidents, who are more spiritual than Bishops, who are more spiritual than common members. And yes, to the degree that “humility” is a dimension of spirituality and righteousness, people actually “compete” in being the MOST HUMBLE! (If you have ever met someone competing on this characteristic, it is very annoying).

    Believing that a greater amount of fasting and prayer will yield a greater amount of spirituality and righteousness makes certain assumptions about God: that He “rewards” those who “work harder” and discriminates against those who are “lazy” when it comes to spiritual things, withholding his answers and blessings from them.

    But in the midst of all this mumbo jumbo about fasting and prayer and “the Macho Interpretation”, I just wonder what happened to Jesus’ direct and simple teachings.

    Did Enos ever get a chance to hear: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking”?

    Or “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.”

    Jesus said, “your Father which is in heaven… maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

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