Objective Measures

June 20, 2011 | 14 comments
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0-a-rulerYesterday’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?

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14 Responses to Objective Measures

  1. Some Guy on June 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Given that we have a very real example of 100% perfect obedience–Jesus–I think a numerical scale for the measurement of obedience may be a valid concept. Like many theoretically valid concepts, however, it is utterly impractical. I wouldn’t have the vaguest idea of how to rank my own relative “position,” much less those of others.

    For practical purposes, we can probably safely see the scale of obedience as stretching infinitely upward and downward from ourselves individually. This conceptualization may not be absolutely accurate– perfect obedience or disobedience seem (to my mind) to be finite limits. However, because we’ll never “arrive” at either extreme during this lifetime, such constraints are probably irrelevant to you and me.

    While I may not know where I “stand” on the heavenly scorecard, I think it’s much easier to determine in which direction I’m headed. In the meantime, I don’t think we need to live in constant doubt about our acceptability before the Lord. If we are enjoying the influence of the Spirit, we can probably be assured that we are “justified.” (D&C 20:30–note that “justification” is distinct from “sanctification.”)

  2. Chris on June 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Measuring obedience can easily evolve into living the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all of our hearts, might, mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves. I evaluate my obedience by my adherence to the law of love. Some questions that help me evaluate this include:

    Do I love God with all my heart or am I holding back a part of it?
    What am I doing to radiate that love to others?
    Am I loving and caring for myself so that I can effectively love others?
    Do I speak loving words and thinking loving thoughts?
    Am I kind, merciful, and forgiving?

    Paul aptly states that if we have faith to move mountains or give all that we have to feed the poor and do not have charity, the pure love of Christ, we are nothing. Although Paul surely does not discount the significance of faith or generosity, he teaches us that love is the principle focus of a Christ-centered life. I would suggest that love is the best measure of obedience as well.

    When we love God fully, we find is easier to keep His commandments. We respect and value ourselves and others as divine children of God. We do not seek to injure others but are peacemakers. Although imperfect, we seek to become whole as we try to love as God loves and serve as He serves.

    The qualities of a loving person which Paul enumerates in Corinthians 13 are not found in temple recommend interviews. Although I do not discount the importance of having a temple recommend, which I do, I do not believe that temple attendance, church attendance, or visiting teaching and home teaching–as important as they are–can compensate for an unloving heart.

  3. Ray on June 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I can’t see the actual abilities of anyone, including myself to a degree, so I have no problem believing there are no “objective” measures of obedience. We believe there are people who are not accountable at all (for anything they do), but I think we fail to accept that each and every one of us is not accountable to some degree in some ways – and that the Atonement covers that degree completely.

    That might be the only objective measure of obedience in which I believe – that we are saved and redeemed from those things that are outside of our control, and that those things probably are far more extensive than most of us realize, so we are asked to do our best while holding onto hope and faith that our effort will be acceptable in the end.

    One of the reasons I believe in the most expansive view of “Judge not, that ye be not judged” is that I believe seeking objective standards of obedience denies the Atonement in a real way – by assuming we can see as God sees and make judgments God has reserved solely for Himself.

    My own standard is, “trying to do the best I can to recognize what I should do and then trying the best I can to do it – knowing I’m not even sure what really is in my own control but trusting that the Lord has paid for my transgressions and forgive me of my sins as I strive to overcome them”. That’s not objective at all, but it’s how I try to measure my own efforts.

  4. Anonymous on June 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    One of the things that I think we can measure our own obedience to is our own desire and our own past. As we work towards perfection, we can get a little bit closer to perfection. When we strive to become better and try to become more obedient, we can measure our obedience against our past.

  5. Ray on June 20, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    #4 – I agree with that, with the caveat that we all might have personal “thorns of the flesh” that never leave us. We can’t become discouraged and give up in those situations because of how we measure up to our past.

    I think that’s the heart of the message of 2 Nephi 4 – and if people like Paul and Nephi can struggle with something (whatever it was for each of them), I am prone to cut myself and others a little slack as long as we keep trying.

    One of the reasons I admire my own wife so much is that she keeps struggling valiantly to improve in a couple of areas that are brutally hard for her – when it would be so easy to throw her hands in the air and just say, “This is who I am. God made me this way. I’m going to quit trying to change, since I know he loves me regardless.”

    That can be and has been abused throughout history with regard to some things, but the idea that, in some cases, we don’t need to measure ourselves against either our past or our hopes and expectations for the future is a wonderful principle of hte Gospel and aspect of the Atonement, imo.

  6. Stan Beale on June 20, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    I find lessons like this quite lacking. The standard of obedience ia often Abraham. Would we sacrice our son because we were commanded to do so? Most of us would probably fail the obedience test. However, there are real world situations thate Church Members have faced almost from our founding. Do we obey the law of the land even when it violates our conscience? What do you do when a church official asks you do something you belive is not within his purview? Let me give four situations people have faced.

    1, In 1852 you are in a free state and discover a hungry escaped
    slave. Would you give him food in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act?

    2. During Polygamy times, you were called to court and asked to identify polygamists that you knew. Would you?

    3. Helmuth Hubener has asked you, a fellow German and Church Member to help pass out information about what the Nazis were really doing. Would you have helped him? Would you have supported the Stake President in excommunicating him?

    3. In 1961 would you have sat down with or aupported the Freedom
    Riders or have supported Jim Crow?

    4. For a short time in the 1980′s a Northern California Bishop told couples coming in for a Temple Recommends that they could not use contraceptives and only could have sexual reations with their spouse at the woman’s fertile period of the month. Would you obey this?

    There are procedures and resources for people who fall into a quandry like the above. But I seldom see it addresswed in these lessons

  7. Brad on June 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I am an Elder’s Quorum instructor and I gave this lesson yesterday. I focused on how obedience to God is different than obedience to an institution. Certainly, in the course of obeying an institution’s guidelines and rules you can be obeying God at the same time. However, obedience to the church institution, in the form of praying, temple attendance, home teaching, FHE, scripture reading, etc. can often be perfunctory. One can be %100 obedient to institutional rules, but still lack sincere devotion to God. The drivers of institutional adherence therefore should be a strong personal desire to show devotion to God, more than the institution or society.

    How can progress be measured then? We must first identify the areas where progress is needed. These vary according the individual. Then we must find develop our own methods for achieving this progress. The church may give guidelines, but there is no algorithmic formula for the solutions to each individual problem. Mostly the solutions to our own challenges require heuristic methods that are tailored to the problem. Obedience to God lies more in one’s diligence in the process of problem identification and creative solution-making than in rote behavior. Rote behavior may be a means to an end, but it certainly should not be the end itself.

  8. Thomas Parkin on June 21, 2011 at 7:54 am

    I think the measure is Jesus. We are meant to be like Him. In order to measure how like Him we are, we need two things: as accurate as possible an idea of what He is like, as accurate as possible an idea of what we are like. The latter requires self-knowledge, gained through experience reflected upon with vigorous honesty. The former requires personal revelation. I’d say personal revelation directed specifically at knowing the ‘character and attributes’ of God. (Rather than, say, where the next paycheck is going to come from.)

    If I am learning about God and myself through experience, reflection and revelation, and have a sense of my bridging, however incrementally, the divide between my being and the being of Christ (the straight and narrow path), then I feel ok. When I don’t sense that is happening … usually I find that I am either willfully sinning, or something is caught in my craw that is causing my heart to callous. I see many of the commandments: not as signs of what righteousness essentially is, but rather as a means of placing ourselves in the way where righteousness can be developed. That is to say, that we can incrementally develop divine attributes: goodness, truth, love, the rest.

  9. OC on June 21, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Luke 18:18-30 provides an answer to the question of measurement. A young ruler had perfect obedience to the law of his time. He told this to Jesus who replied to him that one thing was lacking: that he sell all and give it to the poor and then follow Jesus.Then he would have more than before, in this world and the world to come.

    This is the measurement of discipleship.

  10. Jax on June 21, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Hmmm..

    1 Yes feed and shelter the hungry slave
    2 No don’t turn in the polygamist
    3 Yes help Helmuth fight the Nazis…similarly help hide the hungry Jews
    3(A) – guess that was a counting error? – I’d have just moved out of the south!
    4 – passionate intercourse is ALWAYS welcome in my home :) – though my wife and I agree that contraceptives are not for us, we want as many kids as we can have.

    I have no qualms about blatant disobedience to the ‘law of the land’ when it conficts with my conscience or written religious standards. We can talk all day about the AoF, but when we talk about Moses, Daniel, Nephi, Alma & Amulek, Samuel the Lamanite….etc, we talk about how faithful they were, their willingness to be faithfully opposed to ‘legality’, and how no matter what any gov’t said they were going to follow God and God’s commandments. They were willing to go to prison, be driven into the wilderness, or be killed rather than follow the “law” when it conflicted with the gospel. IMO the person who hides behind ‘legality’ in order to avoid conflicts of faith is no disciple of Christ.

  11. JKC on June 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Depends what principle you are talking about. Can we measure obedience to the law of tithing? Yes (issues of gross v. net notwithstanding). Can we measure obedience to the law of chastity? Yes, if we take it as it is explained in the temple rather than the expansive version that bans all impure thoughts.

    Can we measure obedience to the law of sacrifice? A little harder. Can we measure obedience to the principle of mercy? Harder still.

    One way we can measure all these things is as an on/off switch rather than on a continuum. Although I usually think that such absolutist thinking is not productive, I think it can be productive when you are talking about obedience because the point is that none of us are really obedient to the letter of the law. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can rely on Jesus’ mercy and the sooner we will learn humility.

    Perhaps the most important thing about how to measure obedience is to keep in mind that we will be judged by the same measure that we use to judge. Depending on the measure you choose, that can be either incredibly discouraging or incredibly liberating.

  12. JKC on June 21, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Re: #6.

    Most of these are no-brainers for me.

    1. Feed the slave. Easy.
    2. This one is a little harder. I would not lie, but I would probably refuse to testify and risk contempt.
    3. Help Helmuth, though this is a little harder. Support the Stake President, no way.
    4. Support freedom riders. No brainer.
    5. No way I would obey that. It’s crazy and none of his business.

  13. Kurt on June 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Every time I try to measure obedience in a quantitative manner, I come away feeling discouraged and hopeless. Someone once noted (and not in jest) that to do everything the gospel requires of us, it would take 30-some-odd hours a day just to keep pace. But then of course, by working on obedience when you should be sleeping, you’re merely breaking another commandment to get adequate rest…

    I have found that the best measure with which to gauge my own level of obedience is the presence of the Spirit in my life, which is the token God promises to those who are worthy before Him. Accordingly, I also view answers to prayers, revelation, and opportunities to serve as evidence that I am on the right track.

    It seems there is always something more I can do each day to add another check-mark to an obedience list, but I consider I am doing well enough if God trusts me enough to answer my prayers, speak to me, and provide me with inspired opportunities to serve. These experiences add to my level of confidence and enable me to be more obedient the next day, thus following the “line upon line” pattern found so often throughout the scriptures.

    In this manner, daily progression based upon revelation is a valuable metric for measuring obedience.

  14. Stan Beale on June 22, 2011 at 3:05 am

    Two things that I left out from the situations

    1. Helmuth Hubeners excommunication was reversed after WWII. Not because it was wrong, but because the Stake President did not follow procedure.

    2. The Bishop stopped doing that in short order. The assumption of ward members was he got “counsel” from someone in authority