Yesterday’s priesthood lesson opened with what turned out to be a provocative question: How do you measure obedience? How do we know when we are being obedient?And, perhaps most difficult, how do we know that we aren’t fooling ourselves?
In many human endeavors measurement is very useful and often important. Organizations often use key metrics to judge how well they are doing and to determine what changes need to be made—and we also need to make changes in order to improve. Could we also benefit from some key metrics to measure our spiritual progress?
Regardless of whether we are trying to measure obedience or keeping the commandments or faithfulness or righteousness (all kind of the same thing in this sense I suppose), we don’t have a very precise way of measuring. We do have some rough tools—we see who shows up for Church and consider them “active;” we use the temple recommend as a way of setting a kind of standard. But a standard isn’t a measurement; a standard is a point on a scale, not the scale itself. It doesn’t usually tell us how far we need to go.
This lack of a measurement tool sometimes leads Church members to try to apply other standards, based often on what little information is available, and too often comparing one individual to another—we judge based on outward appearances. Since worldly success sometimes comes from blessings, we may think highly of those who have been so blessed. What callings we have been given are sometimes looked on as evidence of righteousness; Bishops must be faithful, stake presidents more so, and general authorities must be nearly perfect. And as a result we too often either judge ourselves too harshly or not harshly enough, based on the imperfect and not very objective tools we have available.
But I think it is also true that spirituality resists measurement in anything but a spiritual way. Sincerity and faith are such integral parts of prayer that merely counting the number of prayers said (for example) is almost meaningless—although we all know that quality is not necessarily a substitute for quantity. I suppose a social scientist might devise a kind of test or scale for measuring—perhaps a list of question with point values assigned each question. The result might then be a percentge: I’m 78% obedient! That may sound silly, but it could have an advantage that we currently don’t have: objectivity. Assuming that questions are answered honestly and are designed well, it would be nice to feel like we know exactly where we stand, and to know that we haven’t somehow deceived ourselves. But the difficulty of measuring spirituality, the difficulty in reducing righteousness to numbers, makes objectivity difficult, at least outside of the spiritual realm.
Our discussion in priesthood came to that conclusion—that the only measures of obedience or righteousness that truly work are spiritual measures, the kind mentioned in the scripitures, the “signs [that] shall follow them that believe.” (Mormon 9:24)
Still, I believe that on a personal level we all have some measures that we use personally to tell if we are being obedient—not to compare ourselves with others, but as a way of measuring our progress. We might count how often we go to the Temple, or judge roughly how well we do our home and visiting teaching. Of course these measures aren’t the whole picture. Someone who isn’t being honest can manipulate the measure to show righteousness when it is not there, to assuage a guilty conscience. And I wouldn’t expect the Church to do too much measuring in this way, lest the measure become one more way to compare ourselves with others.
But like Benjamin Franklin’s well-known system (as expressed in his autobiography), we often need some way of more objectively measuring our progress. What metrics do you use?