We Are All the Work of Thy Hand

August 26, 2013 | 12 comments
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A number of years ago, a friend wrote me an email that included this reminiscence:

Friday was my last day of spring break. I had worked all through the break, and really wanted to do something fun, something indulgent. I immediately thought of the only thing I have ever done when I wanted to be indulgent in past years– go to Barnes and Noble. I have always been haunted by a trip to the temple 20 or 30 years ago, and an old mission friend was along. We went to the book store, and he just loaded up with an armful of good books. I almost cried as he checked out so casually. I of course couldn’t even afford to buy one on our budget at the time. My happiest birthday memory was about 10 years ago, my wife took me to B&N, where I spent a few hours and I bought two books and we went home and lit a fire and I just read all day. Well, last Friday those thoughts came back. But you see, I have had the research stipend for 7 or 8 years now. I can buy any book I want at any time, and I have spent thousands sating every bibliographic lust I have. So last Friday, my idea about going to B&N just wilted before my eyes. I just worked instead.

It’s a sad story, of course, but I think there’s a glimmer of hope in it. The lesson I take is that it’s vital to indulge yourself at appropriate stages in your life. And, by “indulge yourself”, the kinds of things I have in mind are music, movies, books, video games and other entertainment. Things which seem profound and meaningful to use at one point in our lives can become banal and shallow after we have grown, but I would caution against trying to blindly extrapolate from this trend to mimic some imagined ideal before we’ve grown into it. We have to wait to get there.

2013-08-26 We Are All The Work Of Thy Hand WITH TEXT

 

Mormons get obsessed with this idea of progression. We think about becoming better people, and so we often try to fight to do the kinds of things better people do now, and repudiate our current nature. I think this is a mistake. In fact, I think it is a sin.

Where the language of Mosiah 4:27 (“it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength”) is tentative, the language of D&C 10:4 is starkly imperative: “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength.” I realize the latter was perhaps given in a more specific context, but what could be more holy or worthy than the effort of translating the Book of Mormon?

Growth is indeed a purpose of our earthly existence, but attempting to emulate behavior we are not ready for is not growth. It’s actually a repudiation of growth. It’s a form of denial. Not just denial of reality (we are not as advanced as we would like to believe), but also denial of God’s plan (we are trying to skip steps that He has laid out for us).

Implicit in the idea of growth, I think, is continuity. You can’t get from Mexico to Canada by car without driving through the United States. Refusal to admit this fact, in the context of God’s plan, refusal to trust God.

Of course this is a dangerous teaching, and so I’m not surprised that it isn’t given any prominence. It’s too easily abused as a license for laziness. But the belief—the idea that we ought to accept each stage in our own development for what it is—is divine. As a person matures and grows in Christ, every step heavenward on that journey is hallowed. And we ought to embrace it and accept it and in so doing demonstrate our child-like trust in Christ.

We like to cite Paul from 1 Corinthians 13:11 (“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”) as if Paul had said “When I was yet a child I put away childish things and thus became a man”. But that’s emphatically not what he said. What he said was that when he was a man then he put away childish things. Not before!

This is part of what it means for there to be opposition in all things, I believe. It’s not that sin as we conventionally think of it (individual acts of willful immorality) are necessary so much as that it is sinfulness which is necessary if for no other reason than simply because it stands between who we are and who we long to be. The only way forward is through. (If not sinfulness: imperfection.)

If we accept that we have to go through transitional periods of growth rather than leap-frog our way to Celestial natures, does it at least follow that faster is better? I’m not so sure. I know that I have met people who seem to progress much quicker than I do. I’ve met many fellow travelers who eschewed my penchant for popular entertainment much earlier in their lives, and who developed a much deeper taste for the sublime in literature and art when I was still engrossed in cheaper fare. I acknowledge their superiority, but what of it? Am I in a race? Or on a journey?

If a journey, then it makes sense to wish them well, but then tend to my own path. And that means that rather than wishful thinking I put one step ahead of another and trust my God that I will get home in His own due time. And, most importantly, realize that each step home is not merely a means to a final end, but that the journey itself is the end. We may be at the low point in our story-arc, but we are in the story. Can’t that be enough, at least for the present moment? Can we find solace in the derivative of perfection?

The reality is this: if we are sincere in our quest to be disciples of God, we will lose a taste for things that are not Celestial. It’s unnecessary and unhelpful to lash ourselves into a frenzy to try and vault to perfection in one leap. We lack the sensitivity to even know what that means. It would be like trying to waltz without proprioception: futile, grotesque, and ultimately expressing a lack of faith and a lack of humility. We are telling God: “You are not working in me fast enough.”

I have left behind many things that I once loved and cherished as I have grown older. I have also rediscovered the joy and beauty in others and kept them with me. I do not know which of the things that I find beautiful today will seem silly or spiritual after another decade of growth, but I firmly believe in patiently accepting God’s influence as, through the slow process of lived experience, He makes me into something better than I can imagine for myself.

2013-08-26 Henry Ward Beecher WITH TEXT

 

12 Responses to We Are All the Work of Thy Hand

  1. YvonneS on August 26, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I think this is an enlightening and uplifting look at the way life can be. I had to look up proprioception to figure out what that has to with a waltz. It struck me that the ability to be aware of physical movements in a dance, or fingers on a keyboard, or balance on a bicycle are all examples of proprioception. Some people call it body memory as though it is something a person can carry around with them or lose. But, if a dancer waltzes enough they will have that memory in their muscles and will be able to waltz without thinking and might not even be able to tell another how to do it. One never forgets how to ride a bike, or shoot a basket because she knows where everyone is on the court.

    It is the physical sense that is most like grace. It is something that can be practiced until it is part of living and doing but it requires practice. When it comes to spiritual things it cannot be understood until one understands that perfection comes from the Savior. It is his gift to us. All we can do is accept it and follow him.

  2. Ben H on August 26, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Well said, Nathaniel!

  3. Old Man on August 26, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Nice post.

  4. Clark on August 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    Great post. An other way of putting it is that sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. Meaning that focusing so much on perfection now lets us forget about the good we can achieve. The scriptures are full of this concern noting even Christ learned grace for grace.

  5. WalkerW on August 27, 2013 at 1:14 am

    Beautiful.

  6. Mtnmarty on August 27, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Why I love(and am flummoxed by) Nathaniel’s posts
    …who developed a much deeper taste for the sublime in literature and art when I was still engrossed in cheaper fare…

    Its that you are so thoroughly quaintly modern that post-modernism just doesn’t even seem to you a possible life-course.

    Even when arguing for slower, unique paths you unassumingly believe in the sublime and higher/lower comparisons of art. Its just so sophisticatedly hermetic. You are like intellectual bonsai. Reading your posts gives me the same cozy but guilty pleasure as watching Mr. Rogers magic kingdom as a teenager.

    Godspeed to you fellow child of God!

  7. Carey Foushee on August 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    The post reminded me of this passage from Zorba the Greek:

    “I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath. In vain. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

    “That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.”

    I sat on a rock to absorb this New Years’s thought. Ah! If only the little butterfly could always flutter before me to show me the way.

  8. Bradley on August 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Nathaniel. I look forward to every one of your posts. Thanks for this.

  9. EFF on August 28, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    Many in positions of authority could benefit immeasurably from the approach you advocate—especially those who pressure young return missionaries to marry as soon as possible.

  10. Lisa B. on August 30, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    Thank you.

  11. kristy on August 31, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    As someone with Scrupulous OCD, someone who is good at forcing myself at doing the long checklist and appearing perfect at the deteiment to my own sanity, this article sums up my achilles heal in being in church culture.

  12. Beth on September 1, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Thanks, Nathaniel.
    This brings to mind a presentation from Lili Anderson. She sees three levels of behavior: telestial living (stealing, abusing, indulging addictions); terrestrial living (having good habits, able to hold a job, obeying the law) and celestial living (loving all, being able to overcome all challenges, based in Christ).
    As a counselor she sees those who have been living in telestial ways and who want to repent might try to leapfrog to celestial living, but they haven’t learned good habits, don’t know the law, don’t know how to keep a job. They fail and then are as bad off as before. One must go through the learning process of basic, consistent good choices. Some people learn good habits as children, and some must learn them as adults. We must also learn that we live in a telestial world and there are many things that are beyond our control.
    http://www2.byui.edu/Presentations/transcripts/devotionals/2005_02_01_anderson.htm
    I love this idea because it helps me “accept” the many problems around me. I don’t have the power to fix them all. Only Christ can do that, and he will do it in his own way and time.