For the time will come when they will not endure sound teaching, but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears. And they shall turn away ears from the truth and shall be turned unto fables.
—2 Timothy 1:10 RE
This series has been headed toward a conclusion for quite some time—years, in fact, at least in my own mind, and though it may not look much like it, we’re actually almost there. I had hoped to finish much sooner, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. I needed to learn some things from unusual places, pick up some golden threads woven into past events, and look backward down the trail I’ve traversed, with the sun angled just right, to at last reveal the gossamer threads filling the forest. Though I knew where this was going, I didn’t know how to get there, much less how to teach it.Thankfully, I do now.
I look forward to laying down this burden and picking up another, in the form of the unfinished Covenant Book series. This post and the next should (hopefully) get the present job done.
This series is best understood as a whole, and I’d encourage you to take another look at the previous posts in it before delving into this one and the next. In the first post, I made the following statement:
Let’s reconsider our Lord’s invitation and learn how to ask, seek and knock. This journey will not be brief, and will not begin as you might expect, but it will end, “when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries, and eternal certainty.” (Lectures on Faith 2:56) This will take some “time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts” (TPJS 137) before we get where we’re going. This won’t be a light read, but there will be treasure buried here for those willing to put in the effort to uncover it.We’re almost there.
We’ve arrived at the point in this series where we can discuss THE fundamental defect that prevents us from receiving truth, and Christ’s sweeping solution to the problem. But rather than approaching it from a gospel perspective at first, let’s instead look at it from a human-nature perspective, or even a psychology perspective, to lay the groundwork. Once that’s done, we’ll proceed to the gospel side of things.
Warning: Psychobabble ahead. We’re going to talk about a couple of psychological terms, but I’ll do my best to give definitions that make sense. Don’t get discouraged; it comes together in the end.
Let’s begin with the phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. You’ve heard of it, haven’t you? In a nutshell, it means people get very uncomfortable when they find out they may be wrong—so they respond by defending their ideas, rather than changing them.
More specifically, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort you experience when you confront evidence that contradicts your current behavior or beliefs.
In other words, you and I—we like to be right, we like life to make sense, and we need to think our beliefs and actions are correct. On the surface, this all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we want to get things right and have correct beliefs?
Well yes. Of course.
But that’s where the problem starts. You see, we’re not from here, but we’re stuck—even trapped—in this world where truth is a hard commodity to come by, and is devalued to the point of being suppressed, concealed, and discarded—all at the behest of one who would style himself “the god of this world.”
And yet, knowledge of truth is vital to salvation. As we’ve covered earlier in this series, the very definition of repentance is seeking, gaining, and acting in accordance with truth. Or as Joseph is said to have put it:
Knowledge saves a man; and in the world of spirits no man can be exalted but by knowledge. So long as a man will not give heed to the commandments, he must abide without salvation. If a man has knowledge, he can be saved; (King Follett Sermon)And so here’s the issue: you and I and everyone you know—we all carry an internal map of how the world works, and how to understand things, and even, at the most basic level, what is right and wrong. We get our maps handed to us by our families, traditions, education and upbringing, molded by our experiences. Your map is different than mine, and, in fact, no two maps are alike. I do what I think is right, and you do what you think is right. Everyone acts according to their own map and sees the world through their own lens.
In short, what is reality to you is not reality to me. We each have our own version of reality, and we each believe ours is the correct one, and all others are more or less wrong. You and I could witness the same events, hear the same teachings, even read the same scriptures, and interpret them VERY differently, based on our own views of what is real and true.
Philosophers throughout the ages have wrestled with this problem of differing realities, and the question of whether there is an ultimate reality—an ultimate truth—a reality that is THE correct one against which all others must be measured. Some have argued that there is no ultimate reality at all.
Well, the reality question brings us back to cognitive dissonance—which is at the root of the problem. We’re programmed to think we’re right, and we absolutely don’t like to be wrong, particularly about anything important enough to elicit emotion.
What’s worse, when confronted with information that demonstrates we are wrong, our discomfort causes us to immediately create a fantasy or hallucination so we can still be right. We will create elaborate, and sometimes numerous explanations to show how we are actually justified in our falsehoods. Some of these explanations may seem quite logical, and some may be completely bonkers, but the pattern remains. Even our “apologies” for being wrong frequently include justifications to make us right.
“I’m sorry, officer, I was only speeding because there’s an emergency at work and I have to get there right away.”
The point is that rather than change our picture of reality, we defend the picture we already have, often at all costs. This is why argument almost never changes minds. Disputes only perpetuate the problem.
The more emotion we have invested in a topic, the more likely we are to experience cognitive dissonance when we are wrong about that topic. For minor questions and decisions, being wrong is no big deal. But for major questions, life-and-death questions, salvation-and-damnation questions, or what Nibley called, “the terrible questions,” cognitive dissonance is the normal, expected and nearly universal reaction.
What’s more, cognitive dissonance travels with a companion called confirmation bias. This simply means that, as crazy as it sounds, evidence we are wrong only serves to further convince us we’re right. The more facts you throw at someone to prove they’re wrong, the more likely they are to believe they’re right. A great example is the doctor, years ago, who published an article explaining that he smoked cigarettes to benefit his health. His argument?
- Smoking raises my heart rate—thus eliminating the need for exercise!
- Smoking releases brain chemicals that increase memory and concentration!
- Smoking reduces anxiety, which is known to have ill effects on health.
- Smoking aids in relaxation and alleviates stress (and stress is bad, right?)
- Smoking gives me a break from my work and a chance to walk outside and be in nature!
You get the picture. No amount of evidence would convince this doctor smoking was harming him. His thesis is not rational, but that's the point. We are not, at our root, rational creatures at all.
Now here’s the kicker: this isn’t a flaw in our programming. This IS our programming. We will engage in preposterous and lengthy justifications to keep our own world view before we will change it. We must be right at all costs, you see, and will go to whatever extremes are necessary to stay right. Call it programming. Call it psychology. Call it biology if you want to. We all do it as naturally as breathing, and as predictably as the next sunrise, and yet, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
You may be tempted, at this point, to agree that other people do this. You’ve seen it thousands of times, after all. But let me reiterate: part of the nature of this thing is that you do it so naturally, you don’t even realize you do it. Cognitive dissonance MUST be explained away to preserve your world view. You do this daily. So do I. This defines humanity, and is as deeply programmed as breathing.
God, in fact, calls it our natural state, which, unfortunately, puts us at odds with Him. “An enemy to God” is the scriptural phrase. Not good—but true. Cognitive dissonance leads to untold sin and carnage. It leads to murder. Said Christ to the Jewish leaders:
If you were really Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But instead you plan to kill me. And why do you plan to kill me: I am a man that has only told you the truth that I have heard from the Most High God. (Testimony of John, 6:19 RE)Question: Why would you kill someone for telling you the truth?
Answer: To eliminate cognitive dissonance, so you can keep believing what you want to believe, rather than having to admit you are wrong and change your beliefs to align with truth.
An Ultimate Reality
I spoke earlier of the idea that there’s not, in fact, an ultimate reality, but just individual realities for individual people. I didn’t say I agree with this idea—and that’s because there IS in fact an ultimate reality! It is God’s reality—the way He sees things from His point of view—and it is, by definition, the absolute truth.
And truth is knowledge of things as they are and as they were and as they are to come…(D&C 33:7 RE)This is the truth we must receive to be saved, and this is the truth we are, by our very nature, utterly unequipped to receive. And THAT, more than anything else, is the problem that damns us and keeps us damned. How deep the problem runs, we scarcely realize; how dire our circumstances, we fail to fathom. The nature of the problem blinds us to its existence, and thus we reject our Lord’s proffered solution.
Christ spoke to the Jewish leaders of these very matters, pointing out they preferred to follow their true father (Lucifer) rather than change their views:
Jesus said to them, If God were your Father, you would love me, for I am sent by and represent God. I am not speaking my own words or pursuing my own agenda, but the Father's words and agenda. Why do you fail to comprehend my words? Your refusal to hearken and submit to my teachings makes you deaf indeed. Your father is the accuser, and you share the envy and rebellion of your father. He was a rebellious destroyer from the beginning, and fought against the truth, because he prefers lies. When he spreads a lie, he advances his agenda. He is the source of deceit in this fallen world.
And because I am the Source of truth, you are unable to believe me. Which of you can truthfully show that I have missed the mark? And if I teach the truth, why do you refuse to believe me? Everyone who follows the Most High God hearkens to God's words. Because you do not follow the Most High God, you cannot hear him. (Testimony of John 6:19-20 RE)Is there a Solution?
Well, yes there is, but it may not be what you think it is. What’s at issue here is actually the need to transcend your own humanity, which you are humanly incapable of doing. I’ll illustrate with a story:
Edgar was quite disappointed when, in the middle of a construction project, the head fell off his only hammer. He tried to put it back on, but the handle was no longer tight, and the head fell off again. So Edgar called the hardware store, hoping someone could tell him how to fix his hammer.
“Oh sure, that’s easy to fix,” said the hardware man. “All you have to do is put the head in place, then pound a wedge into the top of the handle to tighten it up.”
“Oh good!” said a clearly relieved Edgar. “I can do that. What shall I pound it in with?”
“Well, with a hammer, of course!” said the hardware man.
“But my hammer is broken!” lamented Edgar.
Are you starting to see the problem? You can’t repair yourself. You and I—we’re computers with faulty programming, utterly incapable of reprogramming ourselves, and telling ourselves, against all evidence, that there’s nothing wrong with our programming. Because that’s what we’re programmed to do, after all. You can’t use your broken nature to fix your broken nature. It takes someone else.
Fortunately, Christ does that heavy lifting. He has power to snatch us from our fallen, broken state and make us anew. He’s the repairman who has the knowledge and experience to repair EVERYTHING that is amiss in us. The only ingredient we can contribute to the recipe is willingness, which, happily, is all He requires of us.
And it starts in a startlingly simple way.
A Little Child
Here’s a piece of good news: All this business about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias only applies to adult minds. This level of brokenness is not congenital, but develops over the course of years spent in this place, drinking in the poison of this world. Little children lack both the reasoning skills and flexibility with truth that adults employ to justify themselves. Little children do not suffer from cognitive dissonance or confirmation bias. They relate to the world in a completely different way.
Hence, Christ’s repeated invitations to become as a little child. I could provide a hefty group of scriptural passages on the topic, but for now, let’s focus on this one:
For behold, he judgeth and his judgment is just. And the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy, but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children and believe that salvation was and is and is to come in and through the atoning blood of Christ the Lord Omnipotent. For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be for ever and ever — but if he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man, and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child: submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 1:17 RE)Notice the contrast between the natural MAN and the little child. The man is an adult, who has drunk damnation to his soul, and is described as both natural and an enemy of God. The child, by contrast, is associated with sainthood, and described as submissive, meek, humble, patient, and full of love. The “submit” to what the Lord “inflicts” idea has less to do with trials and punishments inflicted by God, and much more to do with truth and God’s reality. Adults will not submit to God’s truth; children will.
Little children don’t automatically believe they’re right. Rather, they know they’re wrong. They keenly feel their ignorance, and readily believe what they’re told by anyone they think knows more than them. In such a state, they are prepared to learn truth. As adults we would do well to imitate them.
To put a finer point on it, look at this chart. Normal adult psychology is expressed in the left column. The place we need to get is in the right column:
This problem isn’t fixed by degrees. It is not a matter of minor course corrections, but rather wholesale surrender.
And the wise and the learned and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning and their wisdom and their riches, yea, they are they whom he despiseth. And save they shall cast these things away and consider themselves fools before God and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them. (2 Nephi 6:11 RE)Can you humble yourself as a little child, admit your profound ignorance, your desperate brokenness, your fundamental unholiness, and put your world view on the altar? Such is the only way around cognitive dissonance, and the starting point where Christ’s doctrine takes hold and transforms from mere ideas to actual power. Christ expressed this very idea explicitly as part of His doctrine:
And again I say unto you, Ye must repent and become as a little child and be baptized in my name or ye can in nowise receive these things. And again I say unto you, Ye must repent and be baptized in my name and become as a little child or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. Verily, verily I say unto you that this is my doctrine. And whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. (3 Nephi 5:9 RE)Properly applied—even by the weakest among us—Christ’s doctrine results in reception of the Holy Ghost. And that is the key to it all.
Now this is the commandment: Repent all ye ends of the earth and come unto me and be baptized in my name that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day. (3 Nephi 12:5 RE)To sanctify is to make holy—in every sense of the word; to become a saint through the atonement of Christ; to be renovated, changed, renewed, reprogrammed, made a new creature. The renovation restores your programming, snatches you from your fallen nature, and gives you access to God’s mind, which is, in the end, the only source of the ultimate reality we call truth. This is the beginning of the ascent. This is the purpose of Christ’s doctrine.
The first time you were born into this world, though you came as a little child, you soon found yourself poisoned and broken, a headless hammer, with no means of repair. But Christ offers the opportunity to be born again—returned to that state of childlike innocence and belief, but without childishness and ignorance. The Holy Ghost can, and will, put you in contact with the source of all truth, and give you all you will receive, as quickly as you will receive it.
As Christ said to Nicodemus:
All who are devoted to the ambitions of the flesh remain imprisoned by the flesh, and those who are born anew through the ordinances, receive the Spirit of Truth, and are able to know the record of heaven by the Spirit of Truth. Do not question if what I say is true because the Spirit of Truth confers light, knowledge, and understanding of the mysteries of heaven within every soul who receives it. (Testimony of St. John 2:2 RE)On The Altar
Christ explained to the Nephites the offering he requires to make this possible:
And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood: yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings, and ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost…Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin. Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life and have taken it up again, therefore repent and come unto me ye ends of the earth and be saved. (3 Nephi 4:7)The idea of a broken heart and a contrite spirit is the antithesis of our natural adulthood. You can’t have cognitive dissonance when you believe, at your core, that you are wrong, not right. There is nothing to defend, nothing to excuse, no arguments needed. What Christ is asking for is everything; or more specifically, your view of everything. When you place your very reality itself on the altar, with everything you think is true, believe is right, or feel is good, willingly giving it up—all of it—in exchange for the correct view, well, this is the sort of surrender that results in rebirth.
Of course, this can’t be faked or half hearted. It takes sincerity. It takes humility. It takes desperation. It is, in fact, best modeled by a 14-year-old Joseph Smith kneeling, anguished, in a grove on his father’s farm. As with Joseph, though not necessarily in the same way, the adversary will attempt to thwart you—but don’t let this dissuade your efforts. Like Joseph, exert all your power to call upon God.
If your faith is real and your surrender complete, the light will come, or as Joseph described it, the pillar of fire—perhaps not around you, but within you, as you are baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost—born anew in Christ, with a new understanding of reality and a new view of everything. I’m not stating this as theory. I’m a witness of the truth of Christ’s promises, and I know what I’m talking about. I’ll add my voice to Alma’s:
And the Lord said unto me, Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women — all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people — must be born again, yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters. And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. I say unto you, Unless this be the case, they must be cast off. And this I know because I was like to be cast off. Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning; and I am born of God. (Mosiah 11:28 RE)Our Lord’s promises are sure. His offer is open to all, and available to any who will meet its terms. It is a personal offer to you. If anything in this post spoke to your soul, caused you discomfort, or invoked your need to defend your current views, I invite you to consider why that is, and what you can do about it.
And finally, with this groundwork in place, we can discuss, in part 7, the Holy Ghost.
At the same time the disciples came unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the middle of them, and said, Truly I say unto you, except you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 9:10 RE