This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session from the October 1973 Conference.
I ran into some back-and-forth this week about various purported selfishnesses in a religious life. For example, the "selfishness" of having children, from an earnest fellow urging people to hold back for the sake of the planet. He says that children are "negative externalities" (i.e. costs suffered by third parties):
We as parents, we as family members, we get the good. And the world, the community, pays the cost.
Also, of course, there's the "religious people only care about the next world, so they don't bother doing good in this one" myth.
Similarly, as this post discusses, many people allege the "selfishness" of various types of self-reliance or variance from the social norms. For example:
…I want to applaud parents for taking responsibility for educating their own children, but I’m concerned it stems from a deep-seated selfishness. Do the new home schoolers care about other children? About the legions of children who didn’t fare as well as their own in the lottery of life?…They’re not saying we want this society, this economy, and this democracy to thrive. I suspect what they want is for their five or six children to have an upperhand [sic] in the inevitable survival of the fittest competition that awaits them.
I read things like this and feel discouraged at the way even well-meaning people can so fundamentally fail to understand the most basic of economic principles! But, without getting into the political thickets here (since one could argue I have rather a vested interest), I was mostly struck by how easy it is to get confused about what "selfishness" really is, when one lacks knowledge about what Christianity really is: a plan to become like God by sharing in His work—by helping save each other. Selfishness does not come from holding on to principles like home and family and God. Selfishness comes from letting go of those things and trying to make sense of the world without them! It's as if someone were trying to draw a perfect circle with a compass, but refused to pin in the center needle as a pivot point. Without the anchor of a center point, the lines of the circle will waver, and the circle will never be complete. God's principles of truth are that fixed point around which all other goodness can extend.
I thought several quotes from the October 1973 General Conference reinforced this clarifying perspective. Why are we given positions of responsibility (in families or in the church)? To satisfy our selfish desires for power? Of course not:
A man needs the responsibility of a wife and family. He needs the responsibility of being an example of righteousness. There is wisdom in this requirement. This kind of gentle persuasion is needed to keep a father “on course” and gently guide him toward perfection. ("The Role of Fathers," Elder A. Theodore Tuttle)Why do we try to live our religion and share it with our neighbors? To shame them and "other" them? To selfishly seek rewards in eternity? Of course not:
Let me say, my brothers and sisters, that if we want to save individuals, to save the souls of our Father’s children, we must be willing to get involved and to help others get involved in meaningful ways also.
Some of those who are calling out for help are confused and disturbed by this complex, somewhat contradictory world in which we live, a world that has many crosswinds and crosscurrents, and even some eddies and whirlpools that can entrap and destroy. Let us remember that. Many of these people are yearning for the inner peace and joy that really can come only through love of God and love of fellowmen and from keeping God’s commandments. ("Which Way to Shore," Elder William H. Bennett)And why do we have children? To selfishly make our lives easier or to seek immortality through our DNA? Of course not:
The Lord…has given us this miraculous power of procreation where we can create children in God’s own image and share with them the tremendous blessings of life itself. Then during our family home evenings we may share with them the great treasures of the gospel of salvation. And through the missionary program we can share the blessings of eternal life with all of our friends and neighbors. God has promised us that if we will effectively be his messengers he will share his fortune with both those who give it and those who receive it. ("A Fortune to Share," Elder Sterling W. Sill)
Everything in the gospel leads us away from selfishness. That is not to say that we as Christians are always unselfish; of course we are. We do things for the wrong reasons. We fail to live up to our ideals. But our imperfections don't change the fact that our religion is one of the few things in this world that attempts to lead us away from selfishness, and succeeds! To the extent we DO learn to live selflessly, we owe that to the teachings of the gospel, and to the extent we DON'T, it's because we've not absorbed what Jesus is trying to teach us.
Love of Christ leads us to give everything: our time, our talents, all that we possess. And to give all that—to whom? Not to Him, or to our Heavenly Parents, who already have everything anyway. But to the furtherance of Their plan, which is to say: to helping our brothers and sisters. To saving God's children. That is the sole aim of the Christian life.
Much socio-political thinking would have us believe that caring deeply for our own—whether that be our own property, our own families, our own children—is anti-social. But that view has it backwards. Caring for our own is necessary practice. We learn skills, principles, habits of love as we tend our personal little gardens. And it is through this work that we learn to extend the very idea of "our own"—and realize that the concept of my family, my neighbor is something more vast and more grand than a human mind can even grasp. Commitment to religion is not sinkhole, but mainstay. It is the needle point of the compass. Christ. Family. Home. The center there must hold, strong enough to anchor us as we stretch and circle ever outward, ever further, in God's work.
Other posts in this series:
Other posts in this series: