Rereading Rasband’s “By Divine Design”

I did not have a positive reaction to Elder Rasband’s talk in the most recent General Conference, and I wasn’t happy when our Elder’s Quorum teacher announced we would be basing our lesson on it last week, either. But I decided to try re-reading the talk with an open mind, and I’m glad I did.

The main reason the talk, By Divine Design, rubbed me the wrong way when I first heard it, is that I associate people who see God’s hand in numerous, small, every-day coincidences with the same class of superstitious belief that finds meaning horoscopes. This is, more than anything else, a cultural prejudice.

The secondary reason is that I find the idea of a micro-managing God theologically vexing. Let’s start with the simplest question: how do the mechanics of divine intervention work out? When you pray to get the job you’re interviewing for, what exactly are you hoping that God will do for you? Send the hiring manager a vision, or contact HR directly on your behalf? And what happens when you’ve got multiple people praying for the same thing. Does the greatest faith win?

But the most noxious question is this: if we have to give credit to God for the good coincidences, then why aren’t we giving Him credit for the bad ones? Sometimes a one-in-a-million convolution of circumstance saves a life. Sometimes it takes a life. If we’re giving God credit for the former but not the latter, on what basis?

What I’d like to draw your attention to here is that all of my complaints have been laid on the table before referring to the text of the talk a single time. That’s pretty much how my reaction went to the talk when I heard it live as well. There were certain phrases that pushed my buttons, and that was basically all I heard. From there, my negative reaction was entirely pro-forma. All the arguments were pre-loaded, and they took flight entirely on autopilot.

Just as an example of the kind of phrase in this talk that set my teeth on edge, consider:

Our lives are like chessboard, and the Lord moves us from one place to another… Looking back, we can see His hand in our lives.

The idea that I’m a pawn in a godly game is great for humorous fantasy, but not actually the way I want to live my life. Or compatible with Mormonism’s pretty staunch emphasis on free will. And if we only see God’s hand when “looking back”, then it’s the worst kind of post hoc rationalization, which is a pretty flimsy substitute for faith.

Now, here’s the thing. The paragraph I just cited has an interesting clause that I omitted. I must have heard it when I listened to the talk the first time, but it got lost between the chess board and the “looking back”. Let me give you the paragraph again, but this time the entire thing.

Our lives are like chessboard, and the Lord moves us from one place to another—if we are responsive to spiritual promptings. Looking back, we can see His hand in our lives.

Instead of moving us around like so many pawns, the idea that we participate in God’s plans contingent on our receptivity to direction changes the game. For one thing, it goes a long way towards answering the mechanics question. When God intervenes, he will usually do so through willing human agents. There are exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases, God’s microplans unfurl through everyday inspiration. (It also short-circuits the contention about good vs. bad coincidences, since if God’s primary method of intervention is through inspiration, it would logically lead exclusively to benevolent outcomes.)

Once you start thinking about it this way, the entire nature of a divine design changes as well. Instead of a script written before the curtain rises and imposed on the actors regardless of their own decisions, a divine design that incorporates willing participants is an interactive divine design. It does not override our will; it incorporates our will. This is not a tyrannical decree; it’s a masterful improvisation. This is not to say that God is making things up as He goes along, simply that the give-and-take of improvisation more closely matches the spirit of an interactive divine design.

There are still parts of the talk that I find challenging, especially the emphasis on micromanagement and foreknowledge. For example:

Through the experience of my own life’s journey, I know that the Lord will move us on that seeming chessboard to do His work. What may appear to be a random chance is, in fact, overseen by a loving Father in Heaven, who can number the hairs of every head. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s notice. The Lord is in the small details of our lives, and those incidents and opportunities are to prepare us to lift our families and others as we build the kingdom of God on earth. Remember, as the Lord said to Abraham, “I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.”

Addressing those topics is outside the scope of this blog post, but now that I’ve come back to this talk I have productive thoughts about these challenges to my own views rather than an unproductive mental gag reflex.

I know the talk still irritates some of my friends, especially the showcase example that Elder Rasband picked, which was when his granddaughter ran into his grandson (her brother) while she was on a tour and he was serving a mission. To read the Lord’s will into this can rub salt in the sounds of those who have had tragically inverse coincidences in their own lives. I respect that. And it does some like a kind of trivial thing for God to be concerned with.

Then again, this is the same God who keeps track of individual sparrows. Besides which, there may easily be quite a lot of private backstory to this incident that would explain to us–if we had the details–why this apparently trivial incident really had a much more import than we recognize.

I do have more thoughts about Mormonism and divine providence. Maybe I can write about those sometime. But for now, I’d just like to express the most important thing about this change of heart for me. When I was able to return to this talk with an open mind and an open heart, I learned a lot that I had otherwise shut myself off from. Here’s how Elder Rasband concludes his talk:

When we are righteous, willing, and able, when we are striving to be worthy and qualified, we progress to places we never imagined and become part of Heavenly Father’s “divine design.” Each of us has divinity within us. When we see God working through us and with us, may we be encouraged, even grateful for that guidance. When our Father in Heaven said, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” He was talking about all of His children—you in particular.

The Lord’s hand is guiding you. By “divine design,” He is in the small details of your life as well as the major milestones. As it says in Proverbs, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; … and he shall direct thy paths.” I testify that He will bless you, sustain you, and bring you peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

I’m not fully convinced of Elder Rasband’s vision for a micromanaging God. It seems to me to be one of those issues where you can find differing perspectives within General Conference talks. But I definitely see a path forward in potentially being able to reconcile his vision with my own understanding. And, more importantly, I can more fully appreciate how his vision reaffirms core teachings of Mormonism, such as our divine natures and our particular worth to Heavenly Parents.

Prophets are not perfect, and General Conference talks are not infallible. But the role of a prophet is to challenge us, and–in my experience–it always pays to go back and re-engage with their words. Even–maybe especially–when you don’t like what you’re hearing.


42 comments for “Rereading Rasband’s “By Divine Design”

  1. I know there’s a divide on foreknowledge, but I just don’t think the Open Theists have quite made their case strong enough in a Mormon context. i.e. I suspect most people believe in some degree of foreknowledge. (Even Open Theists do to a degree in that they usually embrace the micromanaging God you disparage to bring about his aims)

    With regards to micromanagement, I think there must be limits due to free will. However that’s not to say he might not have broad plans for you that he tries to bring around. Further I think God’s ability here is more than you suggest if he does get involved. He needn’t get involved directly but he can inspire and most significantly intervene through inspiring others.

    Ultimately though I never quite get the objection to God inspiring on small things. If my praying over keys (to use an oft disparaged example) teaches me to listen to the spirit better, put my life in a state where I can hear the small bits of inspiration, then isn’t that a major thing not a minor thing? i.e. what’s big or not seems in the eye of the beholder.

  2. I didn’t like this talk either, but I’m one to cringe every time I hear the phrase “tender mercy.” Although I’m open to the possibility of God’s detailed involvement in our lives, I just don’t experience it very often. I think what bothers me most about this “micromanaging God” is that the most minor incidents turn into God implicitly condoning everything associated with said incident and basically everything that happens generally in and out of church. I also echo the implications for those who endure personal tragedy. I just have so many problems with the Grand Marionette idea.

  3. I believe in a micromanaging God. Just because I can’t figure out how he would do it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But I also believe the primary purpose of this life is to learn good from evil (not to be tested) so agency takes a much less important roll in my mind. I also believe you have a lot less agency than you think (but that’s a post for another day). I think he needs to guide the learning process and make sure you experience what you need to experience in order for you personally to develop. I once heard the analogy to graduating from college. We don’t sit back and let you take whatever classes you want and then four years later say: “oh, you didn’t take the right classes to get your degree.” My view of a loving parent is that they would be heavily involved in your progress.

  4. “(It also short-circuits the contention about good vs. bad coincidences, since if God’s primary method of intervention is through inspiration, it would logically lead exclusively to benevolent outcomes.)”

    I disagree. What about people like political/religious prisoners who were called/inspired and find themselves making tremendous sacrifices? Or those who following God who give the greatest sacrifice-the martyrs? Joseph, most of the first apostles, Abinadi, even Jesus himself? I puzzle at the fact that for some people, following inspiration often means trudging into the unknown, but sometimes at the end of the tunnel you have prosperity and greater ability to serve others, sometimes poverty, torture and/or death.

    Anything but this terrible roulette looks too me much like Calvinist prosperity doctrine, which I don’t buy.

    I sometimes wonder what would happen if our prominent leaders faced real-life challenges. It bothers me that we might be following the celebrated heart surgeons, the famous business men, the university presidents and scholars, the winning-est lawyers, as opposed to a person with (as Isaiah says about the Savior) “no beauty that we should desire him”. Would we recognize someone like that? If we weren’t talking about the Savior, but just some guy or gal- no accolades, no super talents or powers, would we hear?

  5. I would like to see a post about the new format of RS/PH lessons: 1st Sunday “councils” and the directive that weeks 2-4 are no longer lessons but discussions.

  6. I also had problems with the lesson. The help he got in his own life gave him incredible privilege. Because I don’t live in Utah I could not become an Apostle.
    If the Lord is doing this kind of thing, why is he not helping those who really need it like a mother with a starving child?

  7. Geoff, not sure why you think living in Utah would mean you wouldn’t be an apostle. There have been a fair number of Apostles who weren’t living in Utah when called to church leadership. Of course I’m also not sure why anyone would want to be an Apostle. It’s a hugely demanding calling with tons of responsibility. The slightest mistake and people pounce on you. I’d never want ti.

    As for helping people who need it, why do you think God isn’t doing such things?

    Chet, others might chime in there. I’m in primary so I have no real strong feelings beyond thinking Priesthood was always OK – it was Sunday School that I thought needed a jolt and a rethink.

    Mortimer, why do you think leaders haven’t had tremendous challenges? Maybe Nelson hasn’t, but others certainly have. Sometimes having someone like Pres. Kimball who faced difficult debilitating challenges is appropriate. At other times sometimes the experience of someone who hasn’t can be useful too. I’m not sure we need only one kind of leader.

  8. Clearly there is some kind of divine intervention in our lives. Whether or not everything that happens to us is the result of divine intervention, it is best for us to receive it all with gratitude. But our lives are most definitely not lived out on some kind of cosmic chessboard. Looking back at “all the right moves” and associating that with righteous living is not consistent with what we know and believe. Bad things happen to the righteous–very often VERY bad things. But it is all for our growth, if we open our eyes. Righteousness does not lead to easier livers–in fact the opposite is more often true.

  9. Clark,
    I’m talking about the Q15 that have been called in the past 30 -40 years- my lifetime. Kimball was called as an apostle 75 years ago and died over 3 decades ago. There hasn’t been a member of the Q15 like him since then. Elder Uchtdorf’s time as a child refugee is probably the next most dire thing any have dealt with, but his adult life has been atypical- the Silver Fox is loved and put in leadership wherever he goes.Today, the brethren suffer from disease and issues related to old age, but in their prime, these men were superstars.

    How was President Nelson able to father 10 children while becoming an internationally famous cardiac surgeon, while also spending hours of time each week in personal study and hours more in service to wards and stakes in order to become not just a bishop, but an apostle? He must have been extremely gifted- a quick study- photographic memory, and there must have been a golden touch in his life. They don’t have the same types of hurdles most of us do. Just saying. According to the 14 points of a prophet (which was re-hashed twice in a recent conference), they don’t NEED to have experience on something to prophesy about it. I disagree. I think that the ONE thing that we cannot learn vicariously is pain and suffering.

  10. Mortimer,

    “How was President Nelson able to father 10 children while becoming an internationally famous cardiac surgeon, while also spending hours of time each week in personal study and hours more in service to wards and stakes in order to become not just a bishop, but an apostle?”

    A long suffering wife. Or two, in his case.

  11. Mortimer,
    How severe must the pain and suffering be? IMO, many current leaders have experienced significant suffering in this life. They have chosen not to talk about it. Some members of the Q of 12 and Seventy have lost LGBT children to AIDS. Some have spouses or children with serious mental health issues. I am not sure any human being gets through life without facing suffering and challenges. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has a “golden touch in life” in the long term. And any true Christian bears the burdens of others. Was not the atonement vicarious? Did not Alma speak of Jesus gaining “bowels of mercy” through that sacrificial struggle?

  12. Mortimer, I’d say several have had pretty traumatic events. Maybe not as many as of Kimball’s cohort, but I think you’re dismissing it too quickly. For instance Elder Scott lost two children within months of each other. A baby at birth and then six weeks later his 2 year old son while getting heart surgery. I don’t know about you but that to me is extreme. I’m sure if I were to look I could find many more. Just because they don’t always relate their struggles due to the nature of them, it doesn’t mean they don’t have them. Not all tragedies make for great stories and examples.

  13. Any endeavor humankind participate in reveals a range of gifts, talent, and abilities. For example, those who run a marathon in the two hour range have a different perception of the race than those who run it in four or more hours.

    I think Elder Rasband is drawing from his experience with the manifestations of the Spirit. Those whose experience with the Spirit is different might be rubbed the wrong way.

  14. If I were in Gods position, and had 3 million children starving to death each year, I think that might be a higher priority than helping make Elder Rs life more privileged.
    I am happy to accept that God wants us to save the starving children, but not if he is then helping those who don’t need it.
    If God is micro managing, I think his first priority will be starving children, not helping those who don’t need it. The principle just seems wrong.

  15. Clark, not aware of any Apostles being called while living in Australia, Africa, South America or Asia. How did Uchtdorf ever get called?

  16. Rasband’s would seem to be the view from above. Contrast this with it’s opposite, as elucidated by Bonhoeffer, “from the perspective of those who suffer”

    “There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. The important thing is neither that bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time, that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune. This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above’. This is the way in which we may affirm it.”

  17. To humans, is it possible for God to look like a micromanager and not actually micromanage? Could it be that humans live in a probabilistic universe, not deterministic, precisely because such an environment is the best way to test children who lived in God’s presence, had their needs met, and had limited understanding of empathy?

    So God’s children leave Eden, enter the lone and dreary wilderness, and with free will and a veiled memory of Eden, proceed to learn how to survive temporally with a vague but intense yearning for the divine. Humans are socially wired in their brain development, so one of the first things God’s sojourning children learn is communication, understanding, and cooperation. They each find they specialize in something fairly unique and useful, then learn interdependence.

    Then humans learn another way to survive from an enemy they had also forgotten: how to plot and carry out murder for gain. Murder for gain is less work, and means one less human to compete with. Suffering caused by the choices of other humans is introduced to an already uncertain existence. As humans continue to grow in population, some groups share, some groups extort, and some groups just steal.

    To make a long story short (too late), here humans are, covering the whole earth and greatly complicating the lives of other humans. Did God have to intervene for good or evil to occur? Perhaps the one being who attempts to intervene is the would-be usurper seeking revenge against God by persuading God’s children to take shorcuts to nowhere. Between a universe that tends toward entropy and an enemy bent on destroying God’s children, mostly by persuading God’s children as humans to destroy each other, God is dealing with circumstance much more complex than a chessboard.

    God may plan contingency upon contingency upon contingency in order to maintain human agency and still help them grow individually and as groups. This complexity is perhaps beyond human comprehension, at least for now while on earth. So to humans, who tend to simplify what they see to understand better, God looks like a controller when he is really an eternally patient master planner. He is our father, mindful of us individually yet having to allow for human agency and natural circumstance.

    Elder Rasband’s view is not invalid, which is the point of the OP. He sees God’s hand and confesses it; if his view seems simplistic to some, faithful to others. But, seriously, the test of perception and faith isn’t Elder Rasband’s, the test is ours.

  18. Geoff – a fair number of Canadians though. I think Mormons have only really been in those countries in large numbers for a while. My guess is that we’ll start to see the loss of Utah and even American dominance in top callings over the next 40 years.

    As to starving children, most are starving because of the political situations rather than a lack of resources. If God must remain hidden, then that tends to limit what he can do. He can reduce the number by inspiring people to act, but if you’re asking why he doesn’t intervene more then I think you’re largely hitting the wall of human evil that can frequently arise out of not caring. Put an other way, what exactly do you think he can do to resolve this if he still respects human free will? What inspiration will resolve the politics in Ethiopia and Sudan? What inspiration will lead to good governance in North Korea? I’m not trying to be flip here. I’ve thought long and hard about that question and I confess I don’t see a whole lot people can do. Even foreign interventions often make things worse as we saw in Iraq.

    Now that said, if you look at poverty and starvation, you’ll note there’s been pretty steady improvement over the past decades. So I’m far from convinced God isn’t doing a whole lot. But even moving from hunger to things like malaria, again the main problem is typical local governance rather than there being no solutions. There’s a reason the US was able to more or less eradicate malaria from the US while it still kills millions in Africa and it’s really not technological.

    It just isn’t clear to me though that God answering my prayers about where my keys are means he’s someone doing so at the exclusion of helping people in Africa. It’s just that helping me find my keys is rather easy whereas Africa is a much bigger problem often primarily limited in ways that make the problems very hard to solve directly. Not just governments being ineffective or corrupt but powers working explicitly against good government for their own ends. (Including forces from our own countries over the post-war era)

    P, why is it the view from above? (I assume you mean by “above” privilege or a lack of trials) The main people I hear making Rasband’s point are typically people who experienced tragedy or suffering and learned from it.

    I think a way to square the circle, as it were, is to note even if God doesn’t micromanage us, his plans are such that he can turn even bad experiences to good. Perhaps that’s a weird Nietzschean Mormon perspective. LOL.

  19. The message seems to be that all beneficial coincidences are ‘divine design’. Of course he doesn’t address what we are to make of harmful coincidences. They never do. If a coincidence strengthens ones faith it’s deemed divine, if it detracts from one’s faith its….. just an unfortunate coincidence. The logic is flawed if it can only point in one direction. This mindset allows members (and the church as a whole) to view their choices as divinely inspired regardless of the consequences so long as those choices are made with good intentions. The results can be quite damaging.

  20. The problem with the micrormanaging God is not the little good things, the tender mercies, that God grants and the little bad things He seems to ignore. It is the problem of the God of only small miracles. Every day horrible things happen to people. A cat is miraculously rescued from a tree following prayer while across the street a teenager with a promising future impulsively takes her first ecstasy pill at a party and dies. And across town a young father with 6 children dies of a brain tumor. Where was God, their devote mothers and families cry out in prayer? Oh, it was the consequences of her own agency. But what about the consequences of the agency of the person who let the cat out of the house? Or what consequences lead to brain tumors?

    One recent graphic example:
    A high school football star and a cheerleader were dating. They liked to park behind a grocery store and “talk.” The girl’s mother liked the guy too and told her daughter that as long as the girl kept her phone on so her mother could tell where she was, she could stay out with this guy pretty late.

    A socially inept nerd in the school with some early schizoid tendencies had a crush on the girl. He was bullied by other people and often carried a small gun when not in school. He quietly stalked the girl and became aware of her parking behind the store. He liked to climb up on the store roof at night and watch them neck with binoculars.

    The stalker claims that the guy saw him and and got out of the car and challenged him to a fight or he was going to call the police. The stalker jumped down and tried to talk his way out of it. But the guy punched him and insulted him and told him to leave. He was humiliated before his fantasy goddess. He made a choice. He pulled out the gun. He claimed he had no intention of actually using it. He just wanted to save face and insult/scare the guy back. The guy tried to take the gun away from him but he pulled the trigger and shot the guy in the head. The guy fell and died instantly.

    The stalker made another choice. He probably knew he was not going to get away with killing a person in front of a witness. Life as he knew it was over. So he forced the girl out of the car, made her take off her cloths and raped her as she begged and cried for mercy. Then he shot her in the head and left her “spread eagle” in the parking lot. And fled.

    Her mother noticed at 1:00 and 2:00 and 3:00 am that they were still parked there. She must have thought it was getting too late but she suppressed her growing fear and anger, deciding it was probably fine. At 5:00 am she drove over to the store and in the early dawn sunlight discovered a death scene no mother should ever see.

    The stalker was arrested within a day and will never leave custody of the state and may face the death penalty. The parents and families of all three of these lost children are religious people who pray and try to live Christian lives and attend the same church. Life will never be the same for any of them. What answers does the minister have for them? Do our missionaries have any better answers? If our lives are a chessboard as Elder Rasband teaches, then what in the hell kind of move was that God just made, destroying the lives of 3 young people and bringing unfathomable suffering and misery to their families?

    I prefer to think God gives us a huge amount of latitude. Look how much he gave Ted Bundy who probably repeated worse than the above crime over 100 times. We make choices and the consequences follow and eventually (like in maybe a 1000 years) God cleans up the colossal messes we make.

    Before we propose these sweeping platitudes, we need to spend more time at the police station or the emergency room of a major city and see real human suffering and wickedness. We maybe need to visit foreign countries where violence and suffering is so bad we dare not send our missionaries there. We might spend some time in the library reading and contemplating the history of the horrible things that have been done over the last centuries during wars and famines and plagues.

  21. Students of LDS scripture, and philosophy have some answers (D&C 122 for example) for the seeming unanswerable question: why God allows suffering in this–His creation.

    God’s children are given agency. That means, no one is forced, everyone is given informed choice. Those starving children referred to in prior comments, knew what they were getting into, yet they made the decision to come to this world. Apparently, their suffering was offset by a reward that far exceeded the sacrifice.

    Of course, we’re commanded to relieve suffering whenever we can.

    Following is an account that adds some perspective to suffering. Some here may enjoy reading.

    “Consider the experience of Niels P.L. Eskildz, a Danish convert to the Church who was seriously crippled and deformed when but ten years of age. The sixteen years which followed were a time of misery and despair for him. However, in the summer of 1862, just prior to his baptism, he received a revelation which helped him to understand man of the unexplained circumstances of his earth life:
    ‘While engaged preparing his evening meal a glorious vision burst upon his view. If was not a single scene that he beheld, but a series of them… He beheld as with his natural sight, but he realized afterwards that it was with the eye of the spirit that he say what he did. His understanding was appealed to as well as his sight. What was shown him related to his existence in the spirit world, mortal experience and future rewards. He comprehended, as if my intuition, that he had witnessed a somewhat similar scene in his pre-mortal state, and been given the opportunity of choosing the class of reward he would like to attain to. He knew that he had deliberately made his choice. He realized which of the rewards he had selected, and understood that such a reward was only to be gained by mortal suffering—that, in fact, he must be a cripple and endure severe physical pain, privation and ignominy. He was conscious too that he still insisted upon having that reward, and accepted and agreed to the conditions.
    ‘He emerged from the vision with a settled conviction, that to rebel against or even to repine at his fate, was not only a reproach to an All wise Father whose care had been over him notwithstanding his seeming abandonment, but a base violation of the deliberate promise and agreement he had entered into, and upon the observance of which his future reward depended.
    “Footnote 16: Whatever opinion others may entertain concerning the philosophy involved in this theory, is a matter of absolute indifference to Niels. He does not advocate it: he does not seek to apply it to any other case; but he has unshaken faith in it so far as his own case is concerned… He has always felt that the vision was granted to him by the Lord for a wise and merciful purpose—that he might, through a better understanding of his duty, be able to remain steadfast thereto” (Life Everlasting. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967, [Fifth Printing, 1968], 39-40).

  22. Michael, if God allows us freedom to make our own choices, then he can’t do miracles stopping those choices except in perhaps crude big ways (natural disasters) that usually don’t resolve the examples you give. I think there’s lots of reasons to wonder about the place of evil in our world. But most of the examples I’m seeing seem tied to free choices. So are we expecting God to take away our agency to solve these things?

    Miles, I certainly don’t think all “coincidences” are divine. And I agree that those who think they are have to also embrace that the bad is caused and micromanaged by God. I don’t believe in that level of micromanagement. However I’d again just disagree with the readings that Rasband is pushing such a view. Clearly he’s limiting things to people acting on inspiration. A few examples (emphasis mine).

    “Our lives are like a chessboard, and the Lord moves us from one place to another—if we are responsive to spiritual promptings. Looking back, we can see His hand in our lives.”

    That’s a pretty huge caveat. So in other words he’ll inspire us towards the good, but we have to listen and then act on it. A free choice.

    Even one of the ones I suspect people are reacting to seems more complicated.

    “There is a guiding hand above all things. Often when things happen, it’s not by accident. One day, when we look back at the seeming coincidences of our lives, we will realize that perhaps they weren’t so coincidental after all.”

    But “often” isn’t “always.” Further towards the end of the talk he talks about agency.

    “Now, where does our agency fit in a “divine design”? We have a choice to follow or to not follow our Savior and His chosen leaders.”

    So in other words to the degree leaders are following inspiration (after all they have agency too) and we follow direct inspiration or are affected by people who are, God can lead us towards things that will help us. But because we can’t always discern what God is trying to do, we may misjudge as bad experiences that are really good. This is really a pretty mild claim. Further it completely explains examples like a person unwisely carrying a gun and choosing to use it. Presumably, to use that example, God inspired them to not bring the gun, but the person didn’t listen. He inspired the road rage person to not get out of the car, but they did anyway. And so forth. God simply won’t rob us of our agency.

  23. Jared:

    What if the parents of the 3 children I described receive no such visions?

    Another story I left untold is that Ted Bundy killed my cousin on Nov 18, 1974. I don’t have to look the date up. Over 40 years later it is still fresh. Her parents were walking zombies for decades and never recovered very much sense of normalcy. Both carried that heavy burden to their graves.These tragedies bring people together; our family grew to know the families of other Bundy victims. For all of the parents, 40 years is not long enough to recover. Maybe it is for some of the younger siblings. Stories like those of Niels are incomprehensible and sort of insensitive and insulting. Not helpful.

    Niels story is remarkable, not because it describes a common event but because it relates an uncommon event. Many others like him who suffer much have no such visions. Maybe in the next life. We cling to stories like Niels because we can’t face the awful truth that disaster can strike any of us and the comforting visions may not come to us, ever.

    Often we resort to making the pain worse by blaming ourselves. Every family member had a hundred opportunities to prevent the tragedy if they had only done some little thing differently. And they also heap guilt upon themselves for not having the visions that comfort others. Notice that second to last paragraph in Niels account is dripping with potential guilt. Not helpful.

  24. Clark:

    You have a distorted perspective in my opinion. Most of the suffering in the world is due to what appear to be acts of God. Like an epidemic of Ebola virus or the Black Plague which killed off 2/3 of the population. Only recently in advanced societies has that been brought under some control. Far more suffering is brought about by the choices of other people. Some people are so powerful they can ruin millions of lives. if either nut case currently in the news pushes their big/little button we are going to see millions of examples in a few hours. History shows that multiple bad choices can lead to incredible suffering of million of people who had no say in the matter or very little say. WWI and WWII come to mind. An even more complex event was the so called Viet Nam war which actually involved all of Indochina.

    Some suffering is brought about by our own choices when we don’t actually know the consequences. Promptings of the Spirit may come but we might not recognize them or they might not be convincing enough. Or they might not come at all. I think it is a relatively rare case when the Spirit prompts one to avoid suffering.

    I wonder why the Spirit does prompt more people. But we blame ourselves for that. We have to make many good choices in order to be worthy before the Spirit is going to help us with one choice, is that fair? Consider the unmarried teenager who gets pregnant. She has made probably several bad choices. Now she needs to make the most difficult choice of her life. To marry the father, adopt, raise the child or abortion. She now needs the Spirit the most and is the least worthy of it. Maybe her parents can feel the Spirit for her but will she listen to them? Not just her happiness but the happiness of her innocent child is at stake.

    We can make poor choices that later lead to a situation where we no longer have the ability to not make those choices. Substance addictions are a good example; the first beer is a choice but after 20 years of daily hard liquor I’m not sure that is a choice anymore.

    Have you ever been inspired by the Spirit to do something (like join the military in my case) and later came to realize that you just did about the stupidest thing and were just plain wrong? Or do you engage in mental gymnastics and reframe the experience as something else?

    Then there are things we know without spiritual promptings we can do to lessen our risk of suffering and we do many of them, but not all of them. Like getting back to work instead of indulging in this discussion that might not be helpful to anyone reading it. I’m through defending real suffering. You’ll have to figure it out on your own- good luck.

  25. Miles & Geof AUS-

    Both of you seem to have missed the key point of my rereading.

    Geof wrote:

    I am happy to accept that God wants us to save the starving children, but not if he is then helping those who don’t need it.

    Miles wrote:

    The message seems to be that all beneficial coincidences are ‘divine design’.

    Neither of those actually follow from a close reading of Rasband’s talk, which is why I thought it was interesting to write this piece in the first place.

    In a nutshell Rasband is saying (as far as I can tell) something like this:

    1. God has perfect foreknowledge, even down to little details
    2. God cares about his children individual, even down to little details
    3. God creates plans to bless his children based on (1) and (2)
    4. God implements those plans through his other children and based on their receptivity to the Spirit

    This fourth point is the key one. It’s saying that–barring rare exceptions–the micromanaging is delegated. If God helped Elder Rasband get a job and didn’t help ease the suffering of three million who are starving, it’s not because of a lack of caring on God’s part. It’s because getting someone a job entailed prompting one person to make one decision (and that person, apparently, listened) and there’s no one person that can respond to a one-time prompting to end world hunger.

    There’s also no reason to assume that all beneficial things happen because of ‘divine design’. Just as there is plenty of unorchestrated evil that happens in the world there is also plenty of room for unorchestrated good. This is explicitly stated in D&C 58:26: “it is not meet that I should command in all things.”

    So what we have is a world where lots of things happen that are not orchestrated by God. In this chaotic world where human choices are free and have real consequences, there is also the subtle hand of an omniscient God who intervenes in tiny ways (as well as big ways) by prompting his children to do things for each other. I would therefore expect God’s divine plan to be more like a collection of golden threads woven into a tapestry, but not the entire tapestry.

  26. Michael

    I appreciate your perspective, a little puzzled though. You wrote, “Stories like those of Niels are incomprehensible and sort of insensitive and insulting.”

    Stories like Niels lift many people, inspiring them to feel things that help them manage their difficulties with the hope there is purpose and meaning to their circumstances. I appreciate you sharing the history about your cousin. I watched my wife’s family struggle with the death of their teenage daughter. Their daughter was murdered in the foothills behind their home. Then in the years that followed two other daughters died.

    A few hours after the funeral of the daughter that was murdered, I was given a vision while I stood in the front yard of their home on a beautiful spring day. I prayed silently and looked heavenward asking for comfort and understanding. All I once I saw in vision that there was a large number of spirits in the yard, and up and down the street. I asked who they were. I was informed that most of them were spirits who were yet to be born. They were there to comfort and learn.

    I ran into the house and asked the family to come outside and share in this incredible experience. Some came out. None of them shared in the experience. After the vision closed, I was filled with confusion! Why was I given the vision? Why not one of the family members, dad, mom, or one of the sons or daughters? That would have made more sense. I was left with the feeling that I had added to their pain. I felt terrible. I was worried they disbelieved me, thinking I was lying or a fool.

    I asked Heavenly Father for help. A few hours later after I had left, a lady in the ward came to visit. While walking to the door, she experienced the same vision. She told the family their yard and the streets were filled with spirits. She provided the second witness, much to my joy.

    I’ve experience numerous manifestation of the spirit during my life. The Spirit on occasion presses me to share them in the bloggernacle. That’s why I’m sharing now. It’s not easy. Typically, I get blow back. But I’m also aware that sharing blesses others.

    Elder Rasband’s talk resonated with me because of my experiences. I pray that those who read this will feel the Spirit confirming the truthfulness of what I have related.

  27. Michael, I think you’re misreading me. I’d certainly agree that most evils are natural evils from things like bacteria, predators, weather, earthquakes, volcanoes and so forth. I’ve written on that here before. However the evils you are talking about in your examples aren’t those sorts of evils but evils due to free will. With regards to those evils I think it clear God is much more limited if he simultaneously wants to respect free will and keep his overt obvious involvement minimal.

    To your final point I think you’re more getting at fallibilism. Do we ever think we’ve received a revelation and then decide we were wrong and misinterpreted things? Certainly that’s happened with me. I suspect it’s happened with all people. I’m not sure that entails God isn’t trying to inspire us. Just that learning to feel, recognize and respond to the spirit is a skill like any other. Further a skill that we can easily impede. (At least that’s my experience in my life) I’m not sure our fallibility and typical poor job of living in the spirit is an argument against God reaching out to us.

    Nathaniel in his last comment made most of the points I was going to so I’ll just point people to his great comments. I suspect the biggest disagreement people have with Rasband’s talk is foreknowledge. As I said I’m agnostic on that ontological issue but strongly lean to a fair bit of practical foreknowledge in the short term. Even if there isn’t absolute foreknowledge as some Mormon theologians like Blake Ostler think, it seems to me God can still have general knowledge and point us towards things as part of a plan.

  28. Yes, Clark, that’s what I’m saying. In essence Rasband and Givens are proof-texting life itself. If there is a more hopeless enterprise I have not encountered it.

  29. Thank you for your patience and your thoughts. I didn’t get fired today, that is a relief. Of course there always is tomorrow

    Fallibilism- Thank you for teaching me a new word that precisely describes much of what I have learned about life. As for feeling the Spirit as a skill that increases, it seems to be going the other way for me. I feel increasingly forsaken. God is the parent, he can reach out to us far better than we can reach out to him. He does abandon us, in my opinion.

    I have had comforting experiences, after painful events, the most memorable at the graveside farewells of my parents. (Neither wanted funerals). And both through the medium of violin music played by my daughter. My mother went first and her’s was a horrible death after years of suffering the indignities of dementia. It was almost more than we could bear especially my father, We were glad the ordeal was over but so broken-hearted that she was gone. My daughter about 14 years old played a few simple hymns on her violin, outdoors in a blustery cold wind when it was impossible to play in tune. God miraculously fixed the music. It was so beautiful, not like any music we have ever heard before. It was the music of heaven and we all knew my mother was in a good place with those who loved her. My father lived about another decade in good health but his last week was horrible. I was able to get off work, a prickly mercy (administrative leave without pay for an infraction I was falsely accused of doing) to be by his side. By this time my daughter was a professional violinist and the weather was not much better. But she played her best and it brought it all back, the memories of her previous miraculous performance.

    A few weeks ago I was out in Utah and went with my brother to the cemetery. There was hardly any snow anywhere else but we managed to find ourselves in a blizzard. My brother brushed the snow off their headstone. He had fixed the spelling of our father’s name which our father had intentionally misspelled when we buried our mother. His idea of a prank and we let it stand as long as he was alive to defend it. But it was snowing so hard that it obliterated their names in a few seconds. There was something so cold and relentless and final about it. They were gone and in not many years we would join them and very little memory of them would remain. It is hard to remember spring in the midst of a blizzard. No violin music could be heard, only cold silence.

    God also creates plans in his infinite wisdom and love that cause his children to suffer, many times more than they can bear.This suffering is implemented by his own Hand and by the hands of others. And at times we bear it alone, without understanding or hope.

  30. “Unwavering Commitment to God and the Dark Night of the Soul”

    I realize y’all may not see this as relevant like I do; I have a deplorably fuzzy sense of contextual boundaries. But this conversation, at least for me, was seeming familiar in general theme. I sense some having to endure more than one “dark night of the soul.” I don’t feel it appropriate for me to share my current health situation; call it the complex result of personal choice and circumstance.

    My parental units 1& 2 were divorced after being sealed in the temple when they were younger, both being converts to the LDS church. Parental unit 1 remarried, and now the new spouse must endure much of what the old spouse had to endure. Parental unit 2 lingered, but health quickly deteriorated until a final passing. One of my siblings who was still living at home was left to be caregiver, while another sibling still utilized parental unit 2 as a child care provider.

    Ultimately, as I’ve come to understand it, Parental unit 2 didn’t just pass; this person removed themselves from the equation in order to prompt growth in my siblings, and myself. This person had faults, and though being LDS was precious to this person, suffering was the key to her personal transformation in the gospel, as it has been for me.

    I don’t see God abandoning this person any more than I felt God had abandoned me; but God witnessed my suffering lead to humility and a more deliberate reaching out to God. I felt God responded, and I’m experiencing internal growth at a greatly accelerated pace. I don’t “suffer” any more, assuming I ever really had. My external life has changed irrevocably, and as George Samsa in Kafka’s novel, I now live life as a cockroach, but I still live. I have learned personally there are states of life worse than death, and in my own dark night wanted to escape this existence.

    I remain for the simple reason I still have much to learn, and, perhaps, I have something to share.

  31. Nathaniel,
    I don’t think God often intervenes in our lives but I believe he can and sometimes does. I also believe he is more likely to intervene when we are seeking his help. I’m sure we all have different opinions regarding the extent to which God gets involved in daily life. These beliefs are more-or-less consistent with your OP and your chosen citations can be used to support this point-of-view. However, when I consider the talk holistically it seems to go beyond these modest claims.

    Consider the two examples that Elder Rasband gives to demonstrate God’s divine design. In the first, his granddaughter fortuitously runs into her brother while she is on a tour and he is serving his mission. In the second, Elder Rasband runs into a sister missionary at Temple Square who he had previously met while she was an investigator. It doesn’t appear that these encounters occurred because the people involved were responding to spiritual promptings They are simply happy coincidences experienced by people presumably living righteous lives. Elder Rasband chooses to attribute these coincidences to ‘divine design’ and suggests that we do the same. I’m not willing to make the same unfounded assumption for reasons already discussed by others.

    Now, maybe Elder Rasband just chose some bad examples. Maybe he just settled for a couple interesting stories about good things happening to faithful mormons. Regardless, when this talk is made the focus of an EQ lesson I’m certain to hear other similar stories that (as stated by p) proof-text life itself.

    “Clearly he’s limiting things to people acting on inspiration.” I disagree based on my interpretation of the stories from his talk.

  32. Miles, he explicitly states that it’s only inspired freely chosen actions. I mean you’re free to read it as you want, but I don’t quite understand that reading.

    Jader, not sure what you mean. Could you expand a bit?

  33. Miles-

    I don’t think it makes sense to give your interpolations of stories used as examples more weight than a speaker’s explicit statements. I concur that Elder Rasband’s examples are problematic, but it makes the most sense to try and read them as compatible with the other things in his talk (including the explicit statement that God’s plan works through our freely chosen response to his promptings).

    I think this is more than a charitable approach; it’s also a rational one. You are more likely to understand what a person is really trying to say by working with them (seeing the harmony within their talk) than by working against them (trying to manufacture contradictions out of ambiguity or sub-optimal examples).

  34. Then let’s just come right out and say it: the bigger problem with Rasband’s approach is the same that’s bedeviled the Church throughout the 20th and now 21st Century – privilege and triumphalism. Thus the contrast w/ Bonhoeffer. A beneficent supernatural being who carefully arranges a meeting between two related missionaries at an airport yet won’t lift a finger to stop a genocide is incomprehensible. A General Authority should understand this, my God!

  35. P, so you are saying a God shouldn’t respect free will but does making him evil or that simply you think God doesn’t exist? Because there’s undeniable lots of murder in the world God could stop. So I’m not quite following you’re argument here. If I read you literally you’re saying a GA should know something demonstrably false. So I’m missing something.

  36. This talk can actually be split in two. The good half is the paragraph in the original post, and the scriptural examples. In these cases someone acts on inspiration received. The bad half is everything else. This is the part that suffers from survivorship bias. This bad half has a quote saying that there’s no such thing as coincidence; everything is divine.
    Survivorship bias is when someone, speaking from experience, says “Everything will work out great.” They can say this because it has for them. The person for whom it didn’t work out for, is currently dead and not able to share their opinion based on their experience. It’s like a lottery winner giving motivational speeches about risk taking. Just because a good improbable thing happened in their life, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen in yours.
    So Elder Rasband is a survivor, who can look back and wants to contribute improbable things which have happened to him to God. Now I certainly don’t want to be ungrateful, but to believe in agency I have to believe in coincidences. If there are no coincidences, there is no agency. This talk started out in a good direction, but then the Elder Maxwell quote sank it. I would have found it very useful and interesting, if the talk was about how to ponder about different events in your life, and seek inspiration about which ones God played a hand in, and which ones were legitimately coincidence. That would be useful: not everything improbable was God’s doing.
    Even the two modern day examples didn’t involve anyone responding to promptings in any way. So since no one made a choice God must have removed agency to make the meetings happen.
    Earlier this week I ran into someone at the bus stop that I hadn’t seen in about nine years. Given that nothing spiritual happened, I’m going to chalk it up coincidence, rather than divine intervention. Because if God is going to arrange for divine pointless run-ins, that really doesn’t seem nearly as helpful to building up my faith in Him, as much as helping me receive inspiration with important aspects of my life would be.

  37. Jerry Schmidt: I get it, maybe not all of it. Rings true.

    For the consideration of all I offer this article.(The third graph strikes me as looking quite like a chess board.)

    The first point is that child mortality was high in the past, at least in the 40- 50% range in some times and places.
    The second point is that child mortality is falling.

    Nothing hurts quite like the death of a child and yet it is an extremely common human experience. How anyone can avoid in on an individual is anybody’s guess.The implied third point describes how this suffering is lessened. It is not due to anything directly religious, like prayers or rituals, as much as technology which some, even many religious peoples are helping to develop and implement.

    If the birth rate does not correspondingly drop, then over population brings yet even more suffering in the future. Many religions are opposed to birth control, few comprehend that with falling child mortality it becomes morally imperative and their devotion to traditions do not help. We Mormons were somewhat slow to respond to this new reality.


    For your further edification I offer this wiki article:
    i find this hard to even comprehend.

    We might be making progress on infant mortality, but it appears that future wars are going to be far more deadly than those in the past. Recent developments in Korea seem to indicate that we are not going to escape this fate in the long run, even if we manage to quell the current insanity. What does 20 nuclear bombs detonated around the Pacific rim look like? Pick 20 large cities (Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angelos, San Francisco, etc), tally their current population and multiply by maybe 50%. It will easily surpass WWII in the first week. If it escalates to a full scale exchange between the super powers, billions will die before the nuclear dust settles and it will put civilization back into the stone age, if humanity can survive the subsequent nuclear winter. Those of us raised during the Cold War should remember that constant nagging fear of this happening, and not think the partial collapse of communism was the end of major wars. Tyranny, greed and the lust for power did not collapse.

    i am not telling campfire stories. It is well within the realm of the possible for all of this to happen. Over centuries I don’t see how it is NOT going to happen when I consider the stupidity of past ages and past/current national leaders. And how will the comforting platitudes offered above sound in that day? Some religious teachings are vaguely consistent with this dark view of history.

    Where do we thread the needle between “all is well in Zion” and the doomsday prophecies that have been fulfilled so often in the past? Who knows beyond be prepared to meet your Maker if you are lucky and much worse than that if you are not.

  38. I agree with Miles and Jader3rd. There are real life examples of God intervening in the lives of his children. The examples provided in the talk are not them. Elder Rasband needs to try harder next time.

  39. Jader3rd, Mike, I grock both of your comments, and they disquiet me in a manner much like the B of M disquiets me. The narratives in the B of M, as I read them in my approaching twilight years, seem much darker than was often presented to me in primary, of course. What I appreciate most about the B of M is its warts-and-all approach. It really doesn’t pull its punches, espescially for a human narrative almost as susceptible to human bias as any text.

    The Book of Mormon is part hopeful inspiration, part dark tragedy, part stirring military drama, etc. For me it’s real humans doing very good things, very evil things, and in between where a loving Lord tries to persuade and direct the good behavior to counteract the evil behavior with naturally mixed results. I found myself more saddened after recent readings than I had ever felt, especially as I identified with Ether, watching the people around give in to sin and madness until he witnessed their death at each others’ hands.

    It is in these moments, like the intolerable quiet before Jesus appeared to the Nephites, a quiet voice may come whispering comfort. I don’t know how I would respond if I had not heard that voice in such moments.

  40. Mike, by and large as countries get wealthy people don’t have as many children. That’s happened in nearly every country. I’d also say you’re neglecting the role of technology too much as well. I think the world could easily handle a much larger population without some Malthusian trap. Certainly bad things could and have happened, although statistically the post war era has seen most markers of well being increasing significantly. Still, as WWII and the potential of nuclear exchange in the cold war shows things can get quite bad at times.

    Jader, but you can’t simply separate the two parts that way. The second part presumes you’ve accepted the caveats of the first part. Even when discussing coincidences he simply doesn’t say there are no coincidence. The last use of coincidence is quoting Pres. Monson: “There is a guiding hand above all things. Often when things happen, it’s not by accident. One day, when we look back at the seeming coincidences of our lives, we will realize that perhaps they weren’t so coincidental after all.” (emphasis mine) I think those modifiers you’re dismissing are pretty crucial.

    More or less all he’s saying is that some things we think are coincidences aren’t. However I’d be the first to acknowledge that it’s not always easy to tell which is which. That is God may be directing us more than we understand at the time of the events. Certainly I’ve seen that in my life. I think to simply dismiss this as survivorship bias (“it all works out”) is a bit misleading. This idea is even scriptural basis for this in places like 2 Cor 12. “for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

  41. I think it’s interesting that Elder Rasband is the go to face for teen Suicide Prevention, that the Church seemed to team up with other groups. How does God micromanage someone into suicide? if he doesn’t then how is he a micromanager? if he does then he can’t be very good at it as the person committs suicide. I’ve worked with micromanagers before and it isn’t a good style of leadership, everything you do or write is reported on, the constant checking up on, it’s like the manager doesn’t trust the employee to do whatever and the micromanager becomes the one doing things. it’s a terrible work environment.

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