Do we matter at all? Are we stones that leave no ripples?

July 2, 2004 | 17 comments
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We love God because he’s just. We look at children in bad homes and console ourselves with knowing that their day will come. Every blessing God has offered us he’ll offer them and through grace he’ll clear them of whatever would impede their choice. We see the cemeteries full of people the gospel never reached and we’re pleased to think of baptisms for the dead. When we ourselves have sinned in our parenting or our friendship or our calling and it seems very much like we’ve made it harder for our children or our husband or our friend to accept Christ and the Gospel we remember that men are punished for their own sins and not for ours. If we mess up, someone else will fix it, or God will offer grace if only our victims will accept it. We are comforted. We can hardly even bear all the inequity that natural disaster and inexorable history and wicked men do, even knowing that its all just a trial and a probation. Could we stand to think that even the probation was unfair? No. Everyone will have their equal chance to choose God and salvation. We can’t ruin it. Frank McIntyre brought this up today. “It should not be the case that I am punished for being what God (or other people) made me. I am only responsible for that part of me that is eternally me. And what is that? I believe it is the part of me way deep down inside that chooses to follow and seek truth or to reject truth.” That essence is so deep down that no outsiders and circumstances can shake it, only me. Yes, I believe it. Salvation available to all, beauty made of you though your nation and fathers and culture are ashes, this is one of the most beautiful doctrines of the Restoration.

The dark side of this doctrine is that one clear afternoon by the window while I sat in Zone Conference listening to that dark, earnest Spaniard, my Mission President, say, “Elders, don’t think you’re the best God has. You aren’t. God could send mature adults who were professionals. God could have the very angels preach. Try your best, remember that God lets you be a missionary as a favor to help your own salvation, and don’t worry if you can’t save everyone. God knew you weren’t perfect when he sent you here,” I became detached from the scene and thought to myself that if I quit at that moment someone else would take up the work and if not them, why, in time the people of Spain would stand before God and He Himself would preach them what I would not, because He is full of justice and love to these people and would not deny them because of me, and I swear to you, brothers and sisters, that after that day though I gritted my teeth to be a good missionary I never had the same fire. Saving myself seemed so less urgent than saving Granada, Jaen, Algeciras, the people of the sierra and of the campo and of the Costa del Sol. All Andalucia, young and old, had stood before me when I started and now I was alone. God was just, and I didn’t matter. The Grey Fox went through the same experience on his mission. Perhaps others have too. I hope they shake it sooner than I. I still wonder if I ever really can be a savior on Mount Zion or even a savior on a molehill. How can I matter if God is just?

I’ve thought a lot about it. Let me say I know God is just, and I know what I do matters to others, at least sometimes I want to know it. Here as I see it are ways that God can give everyone a fair chance at salvation and exaltation but that our efforts and influence still might matter. It seems there are a few possibilities:
- Window to His Love: I am a vehicle either by which God gives grace to a soul or by which the soul is given the chance to say him ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ My participation doesn’t affect the outcome one way or the other, but–my willingness to be the instrument lets the love and gratitude and relationships formed flow in three directions instead of one. My participation affects no one’s salvation or exaltation but my own, but it does increase the joy available to those who are exalted or saved. This view also reminds me that if I fail in my own salvation by not participating, God and my friends are saddened thereby, whereas if I fail not they are pleased.
This view is hard to take though because it still means that my actual efforts to help a friend are bootless. It’s still only the secondary effects that matter, so my attempts to assist are really a kind of deep courtesy and expression of love.
- Salvation’s Grandfather Clock: My actions don’t ultimately change someone’s chances at salvation or exaltation or even at temporal blessings or happiness, but they can postpone or accelerate it. It really does matter if I do my hometeaching. Otherwise that family might have to wait for the eternities to learn then what I could have taught them now. These current moments pass and are gone from them forever.
- the Weeping God of Mormonism My actions do change my brothers’ and sisters’ chance at happiness and salvation. God in justice will not let us act in a way that reduces anyone’s chance to zero and there probably is no possibility that we can raise anyone’s chances to 100%, but he will let us aact–perhaps he must to achieve his purposes–in a way that makes other people’s salvation more or less likely. Even in heaven we will weep to see the damned that we could have saved and God will weep for them too. (Note that rejecting this view may not lessen our personal blame but only transfer its object. Instead of bearing the blame for messing up someone else’s salvation we bear the blame for the agony Christ bore to save them from our mistakes). A stronger version of this view might say that our Lord is not just, just as just as he can be. One might look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and say that they were destroyed because they had passed beyond any hope of choosing right. Any child born to them would have been bent so far no power could straighten him. But even here, the destruction rather than let a child so grow tells us that the Lord is sure, he will keep him the promise that salvation is available to all even if he must intervene to do it.
There is a stronger view yet. I choose not to state it.
- Stranded up the beach: In a related view, we do not and cannot influence anyone’s choice either for damnation or exaltation. This is the utter ‘yes’ or the uuter ‘no’ that can only come from within. But we can influence and affect how much progress people have made when they say ‘yes, but’ which seems to be the case of the inhabitants of the Telestial, Terrestrial, and lower degrees of the Celestial Kingdom. We know that the Abrahamic trial, both of which seem to be the last acts one takes before entering surely into everlasting Lordship, is done alone (see the Atonement, for example). ‘Alone’ seems to be its distinguishing feature. This suggests to me that exaltation might be a blessing available only to those who say ‘yes’ from their own deep self without outside influence, but that anything less than exaltation can be merited while still relying on others as a crutch or support. It’s up to the individual whether or not they enter into the highest degree of the highest heaven but it’s up to us whether, refusing to do so, they are left to wander in the twilight gardens of the Telestial or stand as proud ministers in the Celestial courts. In this view we can’t make people swim but we can hold them up a little longer and influence how far, when the trump sounds, they are left stranded up the beach.

These are my views. Add to them. Critique them. Persuade me out of my doubts.

Postscript:
I have been discussing here the view that our actions matter only for our own salvation, not anyone else’s. Mormons often debate the reasons for repenting now, not later. I wonder if some of the rationales in that debate would apply to this one.

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17 Responses to Do we matter at all? Are we stones that leave no ripples?

  1. lyle on July 2, 2004 at 9:59 am

    Adam, for this weary in intentional well-doing soul, I hope that the Christian love of others has some effect on me. I’ve bottomed out. While Kaimi declaims zeal…zeal could help the ner’ do well hit rock bottom faster. For me, I’ve simply lost the capacity to care. I’m not here to persuade thee from thy doubts…for I’ve dived deeper into mine own. I know that I am an unprofitable servant; fore I canst not keep even a civil & polite conversation with others who hold to the faith I wouldst claim. My only hope lies in Christ, although perhaps it doesn’t reach him for I doubt my capacity to accept him & charitably love others.

  2. Nate Oman on July 2, 2004 at 11:45 am

    Adam: I wonder if part of the paradox you are getting at is tied up with the concept of infinity. Let us think of salvation as infinity. God offers it too us and others. What do we add? Not much, perhaps, is the correct answer. However, nothing seems wrong. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that infinity plus some finite is simply infinity with no change, but my understanding is that it is possible to make comparisons between infinities.

    Imagine two functions

    f1(x)=x
    f2(x)=x+5

    As x goes to infinity, f1(x) and f2(x) also go to infinity. Nevertheless f2(x) is always larger than f1(x).

  3. Adam Greenwood on July 2, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    I think that’s part of the answer of why my individual salvation matters to God and my friends. When they enter into exaltation they’ll have infinite worlds and souls without end to commune with, but they won’t have me unless I come also. My question is more whether I can really have any influence on someone else’s salvation. When I go hometeaching, is it just a farce? If not, then isn’t God unjust to those whose hometeachers weren’t as good as me? But if it is a farce, why go through the motions?

  4. Kingsley on July 2, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    Marlon Brando is dead: how very, very sad. I just found out, and I almost feel as if a loved one had died. I suppose because he is a loved one. I believe there is something exceedingly moral about mastering a craft; if that is true, Mr. Brando, free at last from his terrible appetites (or at least from the terrible body that drove them), is happily taking a seat beside Abraham. But probably being a very good actor is not enough. I wish I could do something for his soul, put in a good word for him. How depressing it all is.

  5. Ben Huff on July 6, 2004 at 12:21 am

    I think I’m with Nate. Joseph Smith said whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life will rise with us in the resurrection. So I think everything we do matters. Suppose God even decreed that in the end, everyone will be exalted in the highest sense. Still, it might be up to us how long it takes us to reach that point and how deep we dip in the arc that eventually rises to meet him. Even a year of wandering in the mists of darkness averted by someone who calls to another, to come follow the rod to the tree of life, is a year! A year is a long time. How long will we spend wandering on strange paths, before we enter the peace of our Lord? I think it matters. And if there is eternal progression in joy, the difference between starting upward now and starting upward a year from now is infinite . . .

    If the space between f(t)=t+5 and f’(t)=t represents a higher state of progression and joy for f(t), then while f(t) and f’(t) both tend to infinity as x goes to infinity, still, the difference between them, the area between the arcs, also adds up over time to be infinite. Thus the difference, over eternity, between starting the upward path now and starting it six months from now, is infinite!

  6. Clark Goble on July 6, 2004 at 10:52 am

    Ben, one thing I’ve always noticed about that phrase of Joseph is that it isn’t all intelligence we gain but whatever *principle* of intelligence we gain. So what is a principle of intelligence?

  7. Lily on March 11, 2005 at 7:05 pm

    I was just thinking of the fact that if we have the Holy Ghost to guide us, He can tell us what is true and we dont have to listen to others’ opinions of us or how they treat us for us to gauge whether or not we are okay, we can gauge that by God himself.

    Also, I dont think God is going to relegate anyone to a certain kingdom because of someone else’s actions. If it isnt them that get themselves there, it wouldnt be fair for them to be there because of someone else, rather than because of their own ability to choose to be there or not.

  8. A. Greenwood on March 11, 2005 at 7:36 pm

    Again, I think the responses here mostly answer questions I have not asked.

    Those questions are:
    (1) If I’m going to be saved or exalted in the end, why does it matter what I do now?
    (2) Why does it matter to anyone besides me whether I’m saved or not.

    My question is different:
    (3) Can I influence anyone’s salvation besides my own? If not, then much of what I do in this life seems pretty farcical. If so, how can God be just?

  9. Larry on March 11, 2005 at 10:35 pm

    What is the purpose of mortality? Have we created a cultural ideal that has only a little connection with eternity?
    I was reflecting on Lyle’s statement as to where he is today. It appears he is going through a serious struggle brought on by some experience. If we can be influenced negatively by our experiences with others then is it not possible to be influenced positively by others?
    I am not sure that our actions only matter for us. If that were true then the prophet could be allowed to try to lead the Church astray (hypothetically speaking), if he so desired, and not be moved out of his place before he did.
    As far as Nate’s equation goes, the parable that refers to those hired early in the day and those hired in the eleventh hour indicates to me that mortality yields the same results – come early or late – but as to what happens hereafter, the equation should hold.

  10. Jack on March 11, 2005 at 11:12 pm

    Larry, I think that parable from the D&C is very applicable to this discussion. It goes right along with what Ben said. In that line of thinking, perhaps it is possible for us to influence others in such a way so as to help them get moving in the right direction a little sooner than they might have otherwise. Or, if they’re already in motion, perhaps we can edify them in ways that will increase their velocity. Not sure if this is really answering Adam’s question…

    PS. Larry,

    Are you a contributor over at “Our Thoughts”? Is so congrats! Also, if so, is there a limit to how many times a commenter can post anonymously before they have to sign up? I’m having a little trouble posting over there.

  11. David Rodger on March 11, 2005 at 11:45 pm

    I think that God is just, and that everyone will have his chance at salvation, and exaltation. For some, it will come in this world, for others, in the next (even perhaps, for some, it has already happened in the previous world).

    We have as a goal, to become like unto Christ. And his role, preeminently, is that of Redeemer. So in participating with him in saving others, we become, in an almost infinitesimal (compared to His–but still very real) sense, a redeemer. If God is just, would he have sent a Redeemer if Christ had failed? The answer has to be yes. But Christ did take it on, and did do it. Did His personal contribution make a difference, even if someone else would have done it had he failed? Yes, and yes.

    Some things in eternal life you can only get through indirection. He that loseth his life shall find it. So, yes, we do make a difference in someone else’s life, even if someone else will do the work if we do not do it.

    “If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those you could have saved had you done your duty.” Not because they will not be saved, but because having been called to be His followers, we failed to be Christlike.

  12. Larry on March 12, 2005 at 1:40 am

    Jack,

    Thank you. Yes, Kim was gracious enough to extend an invite to me. The trouble you’ve been having has been going on for a day or two. I’m technologically challenged so I can’t give you the way to beat it. It’s rejected my comments as well. Perhaps someone else can help.

  13. Jack on March 12, 2005 at 2:43 am

    David Rodger said: “‘If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those you could have saved had you done your duty.’ Not because they will not be saved, but because having been called to be His followers, we failed to be Christlike.”

    Perhaps, this is what the story of Lazarus and the rich man is all about. If the rich man had helped Lazarus it may have eased his suffering, but would have had no bearing on whether or not Lazarus was received into the bossom of Abraham. However, it is the rich man who loses his salvation by not being charitable to Lazarus.

    Larry,

    Cool! I thought that was you. I enjoyed reading your first post over there–good stuff!

  14. annegb on March 12, 2005 at 10:59 am

    What a thoughtful post, Adam. You pretty much covered all the bases. I would answer “D: all of the above.” I think because we are so unique, and we are driven by different forces, that we are judged and assisted entirely on each experience and our motives. I could do something with the best of motives which ends badly, that God will overlook completely, while somebody else does the same with evil motives, and they will pay. God can keep track a lot better than I can, and He will.

    I think we Mormons, especially, do much score keeping. I don’t think that’s how God’s mind works at all. Ultimately, the works of eternity, ie infinity, are really beyond the comprehension of the most educated, intelligent individual on earth. I think most of us are going to be very pleasantly surprised.

  15. Sheri Lynn on March 12, 2005 at 7:12 pm

    I wrote a long post late late late last night, under the influence of pain meds, and fortunately didn’t hit send, but the gist of it was that Men Are That They Might Have Joy and Adam Greenwood is that He Might Blog. And I for one am grateful.

  16. JKS on March 12, 2005 at 7:49 pm

    This is a war, between Satan and God. There are two sides. God expects us to do his work if we are on his side. His work is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Satan’s goal is to stop this.
    We cannot be on the fence. The more we know, the more we are expected to stand up and fight.
    Whether we are Pres. Hinckley, or a visiting teacher, we should be actively engaged in building up his kingdom here on earth.
    We can just sit around and contemplate our own soul, our own progression, our own “score.” But we are asked to serve. Of course we are nothing without Him–he gives us the strength and talents needed to do the work. And of course if we weren’t there, an omnipotent God can accomplish whatever he needs to without us. But if we are there, we must do His work.

  17. Adam Greenwood on June 23, 2005 at 2:22 am

    Let me have another stab at explaining myself, Ben Huff (for the first attempt, see #8). I agree with what you say in #5. That is, I agree that it is quite possible both that someone who repents now and someone who repents six months from now could both receive an infinite and always growing exaltation, while the exaltation of the first person would remain always larger.

    What perturbs me is that if God really lets things depend on me, then its possible that someone’s repentance will delayed by six months entirely because of my failures, which means that through no fault of their own whatsoever they lose an infinity of joy. So my question is whether there’s some way in which God could be just while still letting me have any effect on anyone?

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