Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Nature of Sin

I've recently had a really cool insight into the psychological nature of sin, and I'd like to share it with you all.

Everybody knows that a sin is a sin because it transgresses the will of God. However, most people never stop to think of what we mean by the phrase "God's will." Is it just an arbitrarily imposed mandate upon us? Is sin, then, just to go against the whims of an unpredictable God? In my opinion, God's will is something far more fundamental. Namely, I believe that the will of God is truth.

But even this is too vague; "truth" also needs a definition. When we say that something is "true", we normally refer to an intellectual proposition of some sort, but that's not what I mean. Instead, I believe that the best definition of truth would be something like: "the nature of something as it is in itself." This more broadly means that a being who partakes in truth would be free from compulsion, "free" being the crucial word here. You could use even more words to describe this state, including: "authentic", "unconstrained", or even "spontaneous."

To be free from sin is to be free from compulsion. Thus, I will define sin as anything that impedes your ability to act from your authentic nature as a human being. But this hardly means that you should be able to do whatever you want - most of the time, our desires are a manifestation of constraint itself. To be truly free from sin is to have your actions be yours, and not the result of some mental compulsion. After all, sin compels us to act against what we really want, to place our stock in something that does not reflect our true nature and wishes.

The individual who sins has a false image of who he is. He paints for himself an overly simplified self portrait, ignoring those things that don't jive with his ideals or his perceived strengths. But it is just those things he ignores, just those parts of himself that he chooses not to identify with, that compel him to act sinfully. 

To see this, I'll conjure up an imaginary person for you. Suppose that there is a woman who, above all else, identifies herself as a "people person". She focuses exclusively on the human aspects of life, meaning that there is nothing more important to her than emotions, feelings, and personality. Naturally, she wants as much social harmony as possible. But this woman doesn't realize that she is ignoring a crucial aspect of her nature as a human being. Because she detests the idea of interpersonal conflict, those parts of her which rightfully long for healthy objective criticism will "get angry", and rebel against her. Normally, this will mean that she gets out all her criticism in single, emotional bursts, and it is precisely her rejection of criticism that leads to its dominance over her.

This tendency for criticism is her sin. Until she learns to value those parts of her that need to view things objectively and critically, they will rise up and subjugate her. But if she is wise enough to value those parts (and humble enough to let go of her strengths, to an extent) they will stop controlling her, and she will be free of them.

Let me give another example: imagine a man, who, instead of being a "people person", identifies himself as a "steward of ideas". He would spend his days coming up with abstract theories to explain things, and nothing would give him more pleasure than to find the latest new perspective. However, a focus on abstract possibilities nearly always entails deficient attention to the facts of concrete reality. This person would repress any and all capacity for dealing with the world of concrete facts and the world of his senses, and so, like the woman above, the parts of him which identify with that concrete reality would rise up in rebellion. This could lead him to engage in several bad behaviors, such as obsessing or binge diving into sensual pleasures, but they would all take the form of an over-correction into concrete reality, to make up for his lopsided psyche.

Whether it is anger in the woman or sensual desire in the man, the point is that sin comes from what we refuse to see in ourselves. If you have an overly simplified picture of yourself, the parts of you that the picture leaves out will not stop harassing you until you correct it. In practice, this often means being realistic about your desires and your needs. You must be brave enough to see yourself as you are, a task which can often be very frightening. 

Practically speaking, you must use two things to be ready to abandon sin: humility and love. If you are humble, you are willing to see yourself as you are, a being with both strengths and flaws. This humility gives you the capacity to stop relying as much on your established strengths, for it is these strengths that oppress the parts of you that you neglect. In truth, it is often these neglected parts that cause our weaknesses, as we forgo a hidden well of talent or strength when we refuse to develop them. But humility is nothing without love. Giving up sin means that you must be ready to love those neglected parts of you unconditionally and without regard to worth. This does not come on its own, however, for only God's love is up to that task. To truly abandon sin, we must do what is necessary to receive the light of divine love, for only the nourishment it brings can heal the neglect we have caused ourselves.

This popular quotation from the Book of Mormon pretty much hits the nail on the head:

"And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." (Ether 12:27)

All sin comes from self-neglect, or rather, by acting on a false image of who you are. But if you pray to God, asking Him faithfully and fervently to show you your true identity, He will set you on a path to find it. It will take great humility and patience, but at the end of the journey you will find yourself as you are. It may not be what you expected, but you will realize God has given you your identity for a grand purpose of which we cannot now understand. But most importantly, when you see yourself, you will find that you no longer have to pretend. You won't have to chase after phantoms or idols of self-identity, but will be content to "be what you will be" (see Exodus 3:14). At that point sin will have lost its appeal; you'll see that all sin is a deceiving mirage. Then, stepping into the light, you will be happy, and you will be you.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On the Effects of Prayer

Hello, all. In this post, I'm going to say a few brief words on prayer and on how it can affect our lives.

Regular prayer is probably the most important thing you need to do to grow closer to God. The more you pray, the more you will realize that you are not alone in this world, and that a kind and loving God watches over every step you take. Prayer can give your mind peace when there isn't any to be found in the everyday world. It helps you learn to be faithful, optimistic, and loving. But above all, every prayer you make brings you closer to God, ensuring that you will be able to rely on Him even in the darkest of worldly nights.

That said, I think I should talk about the specific effects of prayer. Rather, I'll talk about the effects of prayer's various parts: thanksgiving, asking for blessings (both for others and yourself), and repentance

1. Thanksgiving: The more I have lived life, the more I have become aware that I can do nothing of worth on my own. Every time that I try to raise myself above my failures or shortcoming by my own effort, I sink just as fast into the misery that preceded it. Without God, I can do nothing. My Father in Heaven gives me everything that I need to live a full and happy life, but the more I ignore my blessings and have vain ambitions, the more I fall into despair.

I know that the more you use prayer to express your gratitude for blessings, the more you will feel happy with what you already have. You will realize that the act of "gaining more" has never made anyone happy, for the more someone desires things for himself, the further away his satisfaction recedes. Happiness cannot occur without gratitude, and there are many things for which one cannot be grateful without God. Thus, the act of expressing gratitude to God lets you truly be happy where you are. This is humility, and I believe that you can become more humble when you sincerely express gratitude to your Heavenly Father.

2. Asking for God to bless others: When I ask my Father in Heaven to bless those who need help, I feel a greater sense of love and concern for them. This is not accidental. In fact, I believe that the more you humbly ask your Father in Heaven to bless those in need, the more you will feel a Christlike concern for them. This is the Pauline virtue of charity, and this part of prayer stands as one of the best ways to let it grow within you.

3. Asking for God to bless you: I used to feel ashamed when I asked God for help in temporal things, but I now realize that I saw things incorrectly. When you ask God for blessings in your life, it isn't a manifestation of pride. Rather, it's one of faith. If what you ask for is good for you, the act of asking for it in prayer will help you have faith that it will happen. Or more accurately, this type of prayer will increase your hope in future blessings, while building your faith in God's ability to help you.

4. Repentance: Everyone does bad things, but not everyone realizes why those things are bad. True sin always causes suffering, and this suffering is the reason we call an action a sin. However, most people are willing to turn a blind eye to the long-term fruits of their sinful actions, focusing more on the immediate pleasure that the sin affords them. Repentance, or rather the act confessing your sins to God in prayer, helps you connect the sin and its fruits. If you tell God that you're sincerely sorry for your bad actions, He will help you remember the suffering that they cause. By examining yourself and bringing your sins all before God, He will help you escape from the endless loop from sin to suffering and back again, even if it only happens bit by bit. This kind of prayer will make you more and more conscious of the effects of your actions, fulfilling King Benjamin's exhortation to "watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds" (Mosiah 4:30).

As a final note to all of this, I think that it's extremely important that you consider how you say your prayers. For myself, my prayers aren't nearly as effective when I do it passively, or just rambling off what I need to say. If I could give one piece of advice to you on the subject, I would say this: make sure that you really mean your prayers. For me, this means that I have to stop after each item in prayer, and try to really feel what I'm trying to say. If I say that I'm thankful for such-and-such, I will try to really internalize the gratitude that I'm expressing. If ask for God to bless others, I will take a moment to try to feel more love for them than I do at my default. If I bring my sins before God in repentance, I will try to feel true regret, or godly sorrow, for my bad actions. And finally, if I ask God for temporal blessings, I try to exercise a firm faith in the future fulfillment of that blessing.

By doing all these things, you can open myself up to the light of God in a way that isn't possible otherwise. When you really mean your prayer, you "turn up its volume", so to speak. If you "put yourself out there" in prayer, you won't be disappointed. You'll discover that God has always been behind the scenes, and that you'll discover Him to the extent that you look.