You Do Not Owe God Anything – Part II

As I reflected on all of this, it suddenly became clear what my paradigm had violated.  It stood incompatible with this fundamental truth – that love is a gift, always.

Love Is A Gift

For if love is truly seen as a gift, gratitude would always follow, no matter the degree of love – big or small. Therefore the existence of a baseline, a certain threshold of decency and expectation, could not righteously exist in a relationship.  It was a fallacy.  It infringed on one another’s agency.

And how so?  By expecting a certain level of goodness, no matter how small, that pressure robs the other person the opportunity to show they would do it of their own free will and choice without the existence of that pressure, to show that it is in fact a choice of love, that it is a gift.  What right do you have to rob them of that opportunity?

And furthermore it robs the receiver the ability to see the truth of the act, that it is indeed a gift and not something owed, which robs the person of the joy and appreciation they could otherwise have in these acts of love in their behalf, no matter how small.

Removing Expectation

The removal of such a threshold, or to say that a loving relationship cannot rightly include any degree of expectation, conversely requires you to honor the full extent of another person’s agency.  And this feels right.  They are free to choose good or evil, love or hatred, and it is their fundamental right to be able to choose those with equal validity.

When they choose hatred, you would not therefore feel cheated, because you did not feel entitled to the opposite choice in the first place.  Do you see on the other hand how this allows you to see the true nature of the gift that goodness really is when it is given?  That love is truly a gift?  Because you had no expectation that it would be given.  It allows you to appreciate the true nature of goodness, and to experience the full joy that it entails.

This is not to say that if your partner, child, parent, or sibling chooses hatred that you would feel happy about it.  No, you can see hatred for what hatred is, it is simply that you recognize that they have the right to choose it.  What you get to choose is how to respond.

Perhaps further boundaries are necessary to build with consistent patterns of hateful behavior, or ultimately you may have to break off that relationship entirely if they have no intention or apparent ability to build something of goodness with you.  Yet if they do choose good, and you also choose good, wow, what a rare a special thing to be celebrated, whether those elements of love are big or even something smaller.

Feeling Owed – A Comforting Delusion, An Act of Hatred

Seeing this, I could now understand the motivation that perpetuates this type of behavior, the incentive or advantage that comes from feeling owed a degree of goodness from one another, despite its negative consequences.  In practice ‘allowing’ another person full space and freedom, recognizing their inherent right to choose evil and do evil against you, is a very vulnerable place to put yourself.  It does not feel safe.  It’s a hard pill to swallow to say I choose this relationship with you, knowing that you have equal right to choose hatred and evil toward me if that is what you want.

Instead I think in our weakness, it is very human to want to believe we have some level of control in our relationships, that there is some measure of safety or protection against evil and wrongdoing.  If the other person owes us basic decency, or owes a certain degree of goodness because of their commitment to us, then we can therefore rightly pressure and demand that it be given to us.

It is a comforting delusion to believe we have any real control over what a person will or will not choose toward us in the first place.  It might feel safe, but it is certainly not a loving way to treat another person, to essentially want to hold their will hostage for your own personal assurance and anxiety reduction.

While it may be an understandable impulse, it is definitely a self-serving impulse at the expense of the other person.  In other words, to feel owed and hold expectations for particular behaviors in any relationship is inherently hateful.

The Truth of Agency

The truth of agency is this – that no person owes another person anything.  I was speaking to a friend about this concept, and that the expectation of common decency from one another is a fallacy.  Thinking through the concept, in a flippant way he said something to the effect, “There have to be certain lines, surely I don’t have to sit here and be grateful that you are not killing me right now, or locking me in a prison.”

In the context of the conversation it was a light-hearted and funny comment, but then I replied, “Why not?” continuing, “It hasn’t always been that way in the history of the world, maybe that is something to be grateful for.”

Let’s take this back to God.  We’re coming full circle, if you have made it this far I applaud you!  If you have checked out a little bit, go ahead and take a quick mental pause, and prepare your mind to be at a little higher state, I think this principle could make a difference in improving your quality of life, or at least it has for me.

Does God Feel Owed?

I believe God understands and lives by this same principle – that if He were to feel owed or hold expectations it would likewise be hateful, infringe upon our agency, and God would cease to be God.  So let us go straight to the heart of it, the Atonement performed by Christ in our behalf. For surely if there is anything that we can be indebted to in our existence, it would be this.

Do we owe God or Christ our goodness, our loyalty, because of the great sacrifice made in our behalf?  I am arguing that in fact no, we do not owe God or Christ anything, despite any type of sacrifice made in our behalf, or even despite the gift of creation and life that allows us to make choices and express our will in the first place. Why?

It would be unrighteous of God to expect anything for it.  And this seems right, for wouldn’t it cheapen the gift being offered if it came with strings attached?  Such an idea feels so ungodly to me.

I believe the reality is that Christ is beyond just a grown man, but has reached the stature of the fullness of God.  And as such He made His own choice, an informed choice, a choice of His own free will and doing. In other words, as an act of love, it truly was a sacrifice that He freely gave – no strings attached.  We do not owe Him anything in return.

Yes, it might not be loving to ignore it, it might be terribly ungrateful, and even hateful depending on your understanding of the gift being offered. But then again, that’s your right, equally valid to choose hate and evil as it is to choose good.

God Wants Us To Be Free

Accepting the gift of the atonement, being grateful for it, and loving God back is not something God feels “owed” in return.  Therefore if you do choose to accept God’s gifts, that too is an act of love (even if small in comparison), not a requirement, and therefore something God appreciates and something you can be proud of for choosing.

I believe God wants us to be free, free to be whatever we want to be. The music that you will play in your life with the strings you have organized is entirely your prerogative.   There is something deeply sweet to me and refreshing about this idea.  In the next post I’d like to explore this in more depth – and the implications it has on how we approach obedience.

If we do not owe even God, what are the implications in our human relationships – friends, spouses, siblings, child to parent, parent to child?  Understanding this truth, if you answered yes to any of the questions at the beginning of Part I, how might you approach those situations better now?

The Difference In My Life

For me, coming to this realization, I gained a desire to truly honor the agency of everyone around me by not feeling owed any degree of goodness – and honoring their right to choose good or evil toward me as they desired.

Surprisingly, it moments of hatred toward me, I have felt much more free to call it out – because acknowledging the behavior that in my view was hateful did not imply I thought they should or were required to change that behavior if they didn’t want to, I simply expressed how I viewed it and asserted my right to choose how to respond.

And it moments of love, my gratitude has grown in orders of magnitude and my happiness in the same measure, and without a self-constructed and artificial threshold of expectation I have found great joy and gratitude in small things that I never knew there was joy to be had in.

Unexpected Results

By viewing and treating others this way, something unexpected happened, I began to see something change in me unintentionally.  Suddenly I began to see the good that I chose in a new light – I began to appreciate the things that I did good, or the times that I showed love to others.  I didn’t have to do that, I don’t owe the world my best, I don’t owe the world anything.

I began to have far more compassion on myself in my weaknesses, more patience for myself for when I might reach the better place I want to be at one day.  Because I don’t owe anybody my progress either – to have to be a certain type of person.

And wow, I can’t tell you the massive weight this lifted off my shoulders, a heavy burden that I didn’t even realize I was carrying for most of my life.  I have so much more joy in who I am, and what I am doing in life.  I can appreciate the here and now and bask in the music that I am able to play now without any type of pressure to run somewhere else faster than I have strength.  And that has been wonderful.

You Do Not Owe God Anything

I’m not sure about you, but to my old mindset, that is a very bold claim – maybe even provocative.  But I don’t mean it to be so, I don’t mean it as an empty or exaggerated claim, I truly now believe that you and I do not owe God anything.  And this understanding has had major implications in my relationships with other people and with myself and how I approach life. Many positive fruits have resulted.

Let me begin by posing a few questions that I think are relevant to this idea:

  • Have you ever felt pressure or a need to live up to a parent’s, mentor’s, or even an organization’s expectations of you?
  • Have you ever felt let down to the point of feeling cheated in a relationship because your efforts and investment in that relationship were not returned in kind? (such as feeling a spouse ought to start ‘pulling their weight’, or a child should be willing to do better given all the effort, and/or birthing, you have put in on their behalf?)
  • Have you ever felt people around you owe you common decency, or feel entitled to basic decency if you’re not receiving it?
  • Do you find it hard to forgive yourself, for the times you have hurt others whom you should have loved (perhaps a certain damaging way you parented your children, or the harmful way your treated a sibling when you were younger)?
  • Have you ever felt like you have failed and/or lack worth, if you have not lived up to a particular worldly or spiritual standard?

I know I have experienced many of these in a significant way, if you said yes to any of the above then perhaps this post may also be of value to you.  You may also have been accepting a world view that at its core infringes upon free agency.

Feeling Indebted to God

For most of my life I accepted and believed that I was indebted to God in the real sense of the word.  Because I had been blessed with so many privileges, gifts, and opportunities – being born into the LDS faith, born in the wealthiest country in the world with a higher standard of living the 99% of all humans who had ever lived, and having a family I loved with good parents who believed in and sought goodness – I felt very lucky and grateful (and still do).

Yet at the same time I simultaneously accepted the belief that because I had been given much, I too must give – that when it came down to it I owed both God and the world my very best, otherwise I would be letting them down. And wouldn’t I be so ungrateful not to?  Surely it was my duty, for how could I fail other people by not living up to those gifts I had been given? It would seem not very fair to those who had not been given.  To whom much is given, much is required, right?  And didn’t King Benjamin teach that I am forever indebted to God[1], an ever unprofitable servant?

I think this is a reasonable interpretation of the scriptures taken at face value, and I think might even be the prevalent interpretation that is taught.  I have now learned for myself that such interpretations and beliefs are not true. And I’d like to tell you why.

In practice, internalizing these beliefs that people can rightly owe each other anything ended up harming me and contributed to hurting others around me. I now believe that there is no such thing as a righteous framework in which any person can owe another being, including God, anything.  It is fundamentally incompatible with agency[2].

Which is to say, in any relationship between intelligent beings, human to human, human to God, God to human, human to community, etc., a righteous framework is necessarily founded on the right and freedom to choose good or to choose evil as equally valid choices.  From a righteous or loving perspective in a given relationship, it therefore follows that hate and selfishness is just as valid of a choice as is love and goodness, and to pressure or hold an expectation otherwise unrighteously infringes upon that fundamental principle.

Believing People Can Owe Each Other Is Harmful

Let me give you an example from my marriage – the way I approached conflict and conflict resolution.  I believed that because we were married and therefore committed to one another, that it was a given that we would ultimately want and try to do right by one another, even if at times we fell short of that goal.  That we should therefore give an honest attempt at being our best selves toward one another, knowing that we will not be perfect, but that we should try.  And in this frame of mind if a conflict arose, we could appeal to what the right thing was, what the truth was in the situation as best as we could understand it, and then try to come to an agreement on what the ‘right’ thing to do is.

If we agreed on what was ‘right’ for us, we should therefore go and do it, or at least give an honest attempt towards working to do so.  In other words, if something is decided to be right – I believed you therefore go and do it, or at least try, because it’s right and you have made a commitment to your partner to make a meaningful and lasting relationship with them. You do what’s right, because it’s right.  That was the underlying assumption in my mind.

Do you see the error/s in my approach yet? I wouldn’t have been able to.  I was raised with the belief that yes there are blessings associated with doing good, yes there is happiness in goodness, but ultimately you should do the right thing – because it’s the right thing to do.  Does that sound like an innocent approach to you?  I would have thought so.  I would have even called it an honorable approach.  And yet there was something that was breaking down, something that was causing tension and even pain in this approach.  Was it just the natural tension of growth? Or was there something more at play?

It was very difficult for me to see the flaw in this approach, but once I saw through it, I could never unsee it.  It all started when I really began to reflect on gratitude.  I noticed that when I, or more often than not when I felt my spouse was not living up to what we agreed was ‘right’, I would internally react a particular way.  Specifically, if a little effort had been made still far from what was the person genuinely believed was the right thing to do – how did I feel about that little effort? I’ll create a hypothetical exaggerated example to illustrate.

A Hypothetical Example

Let’s say my spouse has dirty clothes all over our bedroom floor, loose papers and notes across our dressers and desks and multiple dirty bowls and cups that have gathered from weeks of eating in the bedroom.  On my side, let’s say I had done nothing for the week in terms of childcare, hadn’t even changed a single diaper.  We discuss it and agree both of us have created some problems, and I agree to step up in childcare duties and she agrees to cleanup her things in our bedroom.

The upcoming week I make an extra effort and do the majority of the childcare, and as the days go by I notice that our bedroom isn’t getting any cleaner yet, and possibly even dirtier. Getting close to the end of the week, feeling frustrated now I might say, “Hey, are you still planning on doing something about this.”  A few more days go by, and I notice a few of the bowls and a cup have been removed and presumably washed (although I see that there is at least one new bowl in its place and another cup on the other side of the room).  At the end of such a hypothetical week, how did I feel?  Pretty frustrated.  And what did I think about those few dishes that had been taken care of?

If I am honest, my attitude would have been something like, “Wow, what happened, it seems you did pretty much nothing you said you were going to do, did you even try?  Didn’t you see the effort I put into my part.  This can’t possibly be trying.”  Was I grateful for the effort that had been made and those few dishes that were taken care? Compared to everything that wasn’t actually addressed or attempted to be addressed, absolutely not!  Especially since I felt I had ‘done my part’.

While hypothetical, it’s pretty representative of actual attitudes I held when I felt minimal effort had been made toward something we had agreed was right and best for our relationship.  Was I grateful for small efforts comparatively speaking?  I wasn’t.

Why Did I Not Feel Gratitude?

What was going on here?  Why did I not feel grateful when efforts had been made, whether big or small?  Whether it was realistic or not, what was clear was that I was holding a certain threshold of what ‘at least trying’ was in my mind, and since I felt like I had set that bar pretty low, if that bar wasn’t met, that simply felt unacceptable.  I believed a commitment entailed a certain degree of ‘at least trying’ when we agreed to something.

Anything beneath that bar was simply what we should do for each other, not something either she or I would necessarily feel grateful for – it was a baseline.  I felt we owed each other that much.  In short, I felt owed a degree of goodness. Could this be right? When viewed in this new light it felt very wrong.

Part II

 

[1] I think King Benjamin actually makes a really good argument for why a paradigm of feeling indebted and trying to make up for that debt is foundationally flawed, and ultimately a useless endeavor.

[2] Supporting this idea, a friend pointed out to me that the dictionary definition of to ‘owe’ is “to be under obligation”.  The definition of ‘obligation’ is “something by which a person is bound”.  And to be ‘bound’ is fundamentally at odds with free agency.

Peace and Happiness

It was April 2016 General Conference weekend, a little over a year and a half since the world as I knew it ruptured and collapsed.  It had been an uphill battle to this point, climbing and fighting to put the pieces back together in both my inner and outer worlds trying to establish a life the best I knew how.  God had never forsaken me, and in my greatest moments of need when in a very real way it seemed all was lost, a path was placed before me.  I didn’t always have the faith that it would happen, but it did.  I felt deeply grateful, and yet still stunned, still processing.  It had now been about a month since my divorce had been finalized, something I had never considered a real option much less a possibility in my own life.

I felt great peace as I sat on my couch watching and listening, like I was able to breathe fresh crisp air again after a long period of breathing smog.  And while I heard a thought here or there from the speaker, it felt as if the Spirit sat with me like an old friend guiding my thoughts where I needed to go, aiding me in processing and learning.  It went on like this at various levels of tiredness and alertness for the next two days.

Nearing the close of the conference, as I was reflecting upon what I heard and all that I had been experiencing, my mind was suddenly caught up and I had a very strong visual pressed upon my mind.  In this visual I saw what appeared like organized strings of light, and as I thought on them I understood that these strings collectively represented the spirit or mind of man/woman.  As I looked on them further and contemplated their meaning, I then understood that each string of light represented an element of love or truth.  Or in other words a string was a portion of love, that accorded with a particular principle of truth, that an individual had organized within themselves.  The more strings organized within a person, the greater love they had obtained. 

As I continued to look upon it, I realized that it was like an instrument – not that it appeared so much like an instrument as much as that I understood that it was comparable to an instrument.  And as I looked closer I saw that these strings had a natural vibration to them.  I then perceived that this natural vibration of the strings is the cause of what we call peace.  It was state of being.

I then looked more broadly, and I saw while these strings had a natural resting state/vibration, it was also possible that these strings could be ‘played’.  I saw that the strings could be played by acting upon or living these principles of love – and by doing so music was played.  I perceived that this music was the sensation or experience we call joy or happiness, the melodies and harmonies of lived truth.

In this frame of mind this realization was amazing to me, I felt a sense of awe, for I had always supposed that happiness was something we get to, something that is reached.  But here I understood a big distinction, peace was a state of being from the love within, the peace of love,  but happiness was something that you do.  Or in other words joy is an active experience – a way of life.  As soon as you stop doing, peace or who you are does not cease, but happiness does.  Continue with the music, and you are living happiness again.

I then could see that salvation likewise is not so much a place we reach or even a station we attain; salvation is largely a way of life.  By living/playing love that person is experiencing happiness and is  therefore “in salvation”.  On the opposite hand, if an individual ‘plays’ principles of hate and discord, the music they experience is the feeling of misery and they therefore do not have salvation. And whether in this world or the world to come, it is the same.  In other words living/playing hate or selfishness is misery.  Living/playing love is happiness.  It gave new meaning to the old question, “Are you saved?”

Eventually the experience ended.  I’ve reflected a lot on that experience since.  It wasn’t the very beginning of the paradigm shift that I’ve had, nor the end of it either, but I feel like in many ways it sits at the heart and center of the changes I’ve experienced. And for that reason I wanted to share it with you.

In future posts, I look forward to speaking more practically to how these ideas and others branching out from them have changed my outlook and approach to life, that has made such a difference for me.  I would love to hear your thoughts, I appreciate all of you who are in my life, and look forward to next time!

Introduction

Hi, my name is Steve. I am a dad to two amazing children who keep me laughing and constantly on my toes. I am an entrepreneur at heart and have a deep love of life and learning. Some of my passions include music, soccer, and trying to understand quite literally how everything works.  We live in Chicago and are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which lies at core of who I am.

The last few years of my life have been a period of refinement.  Those close to me know that a lot has changed in my world during this time – a tapestry of grief, loss, hope, despair, pain, growth and love.  But despite the many outward changes, perhaps from a long-term view one of the most significant changes that has taken place during this process of refinement has been a major paradigm shift in the way I view life itself.  The pains and beauty of life have simultaneously become more pronounced, I feel them more acutely, and I have found my capacity for love and joy have both increased.  What I want in life, what I want from life, and how I approach life have all been fundamentally changed, and I believe changed for the better.

I have created this blog because I believe some of these insights and some of the continuing insights that come from this paradigm shift could be valuable to my family and friends as we continue in this shared journey of mortal life.  And I consider anyone seeking or desiring to seek goodness, a friend.  In the same way I also enjoy learning and find value in the insights other people bring to the table through their experiences, and hope this can be a two way street.

I think there are many things that we could and will want to discuss here. As I reflected on it I believe the center and essence of those conversations will be love and joy – the two great purposes of life. What is love? What is joy? How do I obtain love? How can I experience joy? Why does it matter? Why does life matter?

To that end, in the upcoming and first non-introductory post I would like to share an experience with you that gets to the heart of these questions, and that has provided me a simple and yet very meaningful model for understanding the experiential phenomena we call love and joy.  My hope is that this model might provide a foundation and framework to introduce you to the paradigm shift I’ve had in the way I view and approach life, a shift that has brought greater love and joy into my own life.

And whether this blog ends up being a few posts or many posts, whether it is read by a few close friends or more, I believe it will be a journey worth taking and look forward to doing so together.