Of Resolutions and Getting Past Frustration

Several years ago I wrote the following about New Year’s resolutions. Don’t despair about how yours are going, or even if you have not made any.

Not to discourage you from making New Year’s resolutions, but how are your 2012 resolutions coming? Are you still on track? Given up on them? Thinking about it? They can drive you nuts.

The problem is not so much with making resolutions at the start of the year. Psychologically, a new beginning that is tied to a new beginning of the calendar can be a good motivator, particularly to get started. Neither is there a problem with choosing to change something or do something for the better. Given a minute or less, every honest person can identify a habit in need of change or a practice in need of adoption. The problem is usually not even that the aim is too high, the goal too unrealistic, the resolution too ambitious.

If anything, the real problem is that the resolution is too narrow, too small, too unimportant, particularly if taken without a greater context. Each of us should be self aware enough to recognize plenty of material to work with to create a depressingly long “needs improvement” list. The question of where to begin—if we persist—may soon be overwhelmed by the question, where does it end? There are too many for any one to hold our attention. We need to look beyond the individual sin or foible, on to why we are willing to sin.

Martin Luther was in large measure driven away from the Catholic Church because of its emphasis on specifically repenting of each and every sin, correcting every personal flaw, large and small, with particularity. There was no apparent end in this life to the correcting, no bottom to the list of sins, especially with a list being added to each day. Repenting of each and every sin, he never made enough progress on his own list.

Fortunately for Luther and for everyone else, the God of Heaven has never called upon us to repent of each of our sins seriatim. Neither have His prophets. That is a man-made idea, and one that is sure to lead to deep moral frustration.

To be sure, God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). Heaven is the ultimate “white room;” not a speck of evil can be tolerated there, no room for anything unclean in the least degree (see 3 Nephi 27:19).

God does not require us to repent of each sin. He requires that we repent of all sins. There is a difference, all of the difference in the world. The first suggests that we can repent of sins in some kind of order, working on some sins while still playing with some of our favorites, even if only temporarily. The true doctrine is more demanding and more liberating: God wants us to give up sinning, the willingness to do evil. The focus on individual sins is misplaced, as if the source of the problem is in the act itself, what we do, whereas the real source is found in why we do what we do. God wants us to change our hearts (and will help us to do so), knowing that with the change in their nature of our actions will then take care of themselves.

Carefully search all Christian scriptures, ancient and modern, and you will find God consistently calling upon His children to repent of all of their sins. He does not ask for or condone a selective repentance that focuses on this or that individual sin or ever ask us to work down our personal list of evil. He asks us to give it up, all of it. What the Lord requires of His children to be acceptable to live with Him again is a change of life. The ancient American prophet Alma described this repentance, this change of heart, as a man who has “desired righteousness until the end of his days” (Alma 41:6). John, the Apostle of ancient times, referred to this change as walking “in the light” (see 1 John 1:5-10).

This change of heart comes from belief in Christ, a powerful wholehearted belief that manifests itself in our actions. Another ancient American prophet, Samuel, declared it with these words:

And if ye believe on his [Christ’s] name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits. (Helaman 14:13)

Notice that it is true, vitalizing belief that brings about the change of action. A modern prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, explained true repentance in this way:

In connection with repentance, the scriptures use the phrase, ‘with all his heart’ . . . Obviously, this rules out any reservations. Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.203)

One last point: note that perfection is not required to enter into the light. As the Apostle John taught, those who enter into the light are in the process of making themselves pure (1 John 3:3), Christ giving them the power to do so through the soul-enriching influence of the Holy Spirit.

Make your resolutions and do them now, but put them in the context of changing your heart and thereby your whole life. Aim for the highest of all. Then we know where to begin and where it all ends. And keep in mind, Christ allows you to start over when you slip up.

(First published January 1, 2012)

Of Demagogues and Big Problems

One of the common tricks of demagogues, as cheap as it is common, is to denounce in high dander something for being “Big,”—“bad” because it is “Big.” Some of the recent targets have been Big Banks, Big Pharma (the drug companies), Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Business in general. The target is apparently chosen for its relation to the prescription that the demagogue already has in mind. Invariably the prescription involves granting more power to the demagogue, sometimes ceded from the freedoms of the targeted Big, but not infrequently taken from the liberty of the people who are somehow harmed by the Big, who are to be somehow made better by being less free.

Obamacare is one example, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, and Big Medicine all denounced to some degree in the effort to generate popular support to pass the legislation. In the end, as more and more people are recognizing, it is individual choice that has been lost, personal freedoms to choose doctors, medical plans, and available treatments (along with substantial sums of money) that have been taken, passed on to big bureaucracies identified by the demagogues.

Demagogues on left and right and even in the middle resort to this device of denouncing Big Bad, because it resonates with many people who do not consider themselves “Big” anything. We all can feel intimidated by something in our lives and experiences bigger than ourselves, making us all potentially susceptible to the demagogue’s pandering. It is also a favorite device of demagogues, because it does not require much thought or creativity to make the anti-Big speech. It seems almost required that the demagogue at some point refer to the Big Target as “Goliath” and modestly identify himself or herself with “David.” That tired jape is now getting to be about 3,000 years old, but demagogues think that their audiences just cannot get enough of it.

To be sure, there are some cases where being big is a good thing and some things that can be too big to be good. It all has to do with why they are big and perhaps how they got that way. Big savings are usually good. The Grand Canyon is big and magnificent, and I would say that the Empire StateBuilding is, too, at least as I behold it. On the other hand, big debts are to be avoided, big pits can be dangerous, and the L Tower in Toronto is an eyesore in my estimation (though I will acknowledge that others could be fond of it).

Government can be too big or too small, depending on what it does with our rights and freedoms. There are governments too small to promote and protect freedom, while there are many—most—that are too big, and ever increasing at the expense of individual rights, freedoms, and opportunities. That includes governments that are big enough to help their cronies become bigger by robbing the competition and the public. Businesses that are big because of government favor would be better for everyone if they lost the government favor and let competition, efficiency, and customer choices determine how big they should be.

Some are just big because they grew that way. Is Microsoft or Apple too big? I do not know, and neither do you. Exposed to the full discipline of the free market they will be the right size, and so will their competitors. What is the right size for banks in the United States? I do not know, and again neither do you nor does anyone else. The more that they are exposed to market forces, the sooner we will get the best answer, which I expect will be along the lines of “many sizes and shapes” in order to match the many sizes and shapes and needs of businesses, families, and individuals who rely on banks for financial services. Free competition in open markets has the power to right size commercial enterprises.

A word of caution. Part of the success of the war on Big consists in making the listeners feel small and helpless—unless rescued and led by the fearless demagogue. Besides belittling most people, the demagogue’s device diverts attention from the fact that just about everyone is part of something Big, a Big that may eventually be the demagogue’s next target. Maybe your church will one day be considered too “Big.” Or maybe the industry in which you happen to work will become a “Big” target, the town or region where you live, your race or your ethnic group, your savings and investments, the cars or trucks that you drive, your appetite, your use of water, the size of the lot of your house, the wealth of your nation. All of these, and many others, have already been used by demagogues in their Big harangues. The demagogue’s insatiable appetite for power never has enough targets. He or she is always looking for more.

Sometimes there is a kernel of something genuinely amiss in the demagogue’s Big complaint. Often, when you boil down the genuine substance of any of the complaints to the hard facts, it is hard to discover what is the Big Deal—at least in the problem. The Big Deal is to be found in the solution, which is what the demagogue is really after. Were the Popes in Rome really controlling the lives and governments of England in the time of Henry VIII? No, but the solution of confiscating Catholic Church properties and awarding them to the King’s cronies was a very Big Deal. The Nazi demagogues in Germany played the same game with their own people, the German Jews, and with their property and possessions.

The demagogue’s solutions, resting upon emotion and panic, seldom solve anything and often lead to more problems. The Climate Wars—one year the coming ice age, the next year global warming, today just climate “change”—is an example we have all seen unfold, inflicting untold billions of dollars of costs while enriching favored cronies, but which in even the most enthusiastic promises of the demagogues will do little to affect the climate in reality in our lifetimes.

The next time you hear a public figure fume about something being Big, carefully inquire into and focus upon what he or she is after. You may be a target just Big enough.