Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wickedness Never Was Happiness

When Alma first told Corianton that he should stay away from the harlot Isabel because "wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10), he offered spiritual counsel to a wayward son without any sort of external proof. He asked Corianton to believe that the enticing pleasures obviously associated with many forms of wickedness bring no lasting satisfaction. Now, 2,100 years later, I bring you empirical proof that "wickedness never was happiness."

In his book, Gross National Happiness, Arthur C. Brooks calls attention to Thomas Jefferson's claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are entitled to "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If the United States is a nation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, Brooks asks, what are the public policy goals that will make our individual pursuit of happiness more successful?

Using 30 years of survey data and a variety of experiments, Brooks concludes that the following things make people very happy: personal freedoms, marriage, a belief in God, friendships, holding conservative political views, work, volunteering and charitable giving. Most of the items on this list are things I would guess are almost universally thought of as being things that contribute to happiness (with the possible exception of the conservative politics bit). More importantly, at least for the purposes of this forum, all of these things (again, with the possible exception of conservative politics) are inherently righteous. God wants us to have agency, to be married, to worship Him, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to work, to serve others and to give our substance to the poor. In effect, Brooks simply proves Lehi's point that "if there be no righteousness there be no happiness" (2 Ne. 2:13). In that respect, what Brooks advocates is a nation dedicated to righteous policies (my words, not his--I think Brooks does a great job of writing from a politically and religiously neutral position), and he does so in a very entertaining way.

Brooks also takes a good look at what makes people unhappy--and that is wickedness. Brooks separates the aforementioned category of personal freedoms into several subsections: economic, political, religious and moral freedoms. Personal economic, political and religious freedoms are all strongly correlated with happiness: the ability to choose how to spend our money, who we should vote for and what church (if any) we should attend makes us very happy. But moral freedom--freedom from moral or social restraints--makes individuals very unhappy:

"Unlike economic, political, and religious freedom, moral freedom has not brought happiness. We can see this vividly by comparing people who favor various moral and social freedoms to those who do not. Do you think a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason? Even correcting for your age, income, education, race, and marital status [things that might otherwise affect your happiness], you are 9 percentage points less likely to be very happy than those who do not believe in abortion on demand. Do you hate the church's moral strictures and think religion brings more conflict than peace? You are significantly less likely than religion's supporters to say you are very happy. Premarital sex, drug use, you name it--the moral traditionalists have it all over the moral modernists when it comes to happiness" (94-95).

For me, this is nothing new; I think Alma explained things very well 2,100 years ago. Still, it's nice to have empirical proof, and Brooks' book presents some fantastic insights into how we can live "after the manner of happiness" (2 Ne. 5:27) at a national level today.

Let me offer three more excerpts from the book which I found thought-provoking.

1. Brooks' argues--and his data prove--that while marriage makes people happier, having kids does not (this is actually a bit reductive; he suggests that kids make most of us unhappy but that kids make the people who have large families happy--or at least less unhappy). My favorite quote from this section: "None of this is to say that people with kids are unhappy people. There are many things in a parent's life that bring great joy. For example, spending time away from their children" (p. 66).

On a more serious note, Brooks defends the practice of raising kids (and lots of them) as a practice that will increase happiness at the national level because being part of a family is what makes kids most happy--as reported by none other than MTV, in conjunction with the Associated Press. Brooks concludes:

"And here lies the great irony of parenthood. Parents always talk about the joy they get from their kids, while kids complain about their parents. But in fact, there is strong evidence that parents make children much happier, while children make parents slightly less happy. So procreating may in fact contribute to our gross national happiness--just not in the ways we might have always believed. We should think of parenthood as a charitable act, by which parents invest some of their own happiness to create that much more for the next generation. This may be the greatest happiness-related reason of all for having children" (p. 72).

Brooks' words reminded me of another observation from Lehi, on a position relatively (but not wholly) unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--that "Adam fell that man might be, and men are that they might have joy" (2 Ne. 2:25). Think about the ways in which Brooks' conclusions on the impact of children on happiness might be relevant to the case of Adam and Eve. Both undoubtedly would have been happier--at least by our standards--remaining in Eden than they were after the Fall. But they sacrificed their own personal happiness in order to bring about an tremendous increase in aggregate happiness by allowing each of us to come to earth and receive a body. I think Brooks has uncovered more truth than he knew.

2. Another interesting finding Brooks makes comes from "a survey of almost 15,000 twins born in Virginia between 1915 and 1971 [in which] researchers found no evidence that religious affiliation--the actual religion or denomination that one belonged to--had a genetic component to it. They did find, however, that between 25 and 42 percent of the variability in how often people attended their houses of worship could be explained genetically. Happy people of faith, it seems, beget happy people of faith" (p. 47). This particular finding is interesting to me because of the strong emphasis in the Judeo-Christian tradition on a familial religion. For most of history, most religions in this tradition have been family affairs, whether we are talking about Abraham, Muhammad (Islam certainly springs out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether or not it is commonly recognized as such or not) or Joseph Smith. The Puritans came to the New World because they believed that the unregenerate or ungodly should be restricted from church membership, but they established what was called "The Half-Way Covenant" in 1662, allowing the children of church members to receive communion even if they were not godly, because they believed that God was more likely to send an "elect" spirit to an "elect" family. Apparently, the Puritans may have been right.

3. My favorite quote from the whole book isn't actually from Brooks. He quotes Newt Gingrich, who reminded American citizens that "the Declaration of Independence asserts that we deserve 'not happiness stamps; not a department of happiness; not therapy for happiness. Pursuit'" (p. 32)

So go pursue! (But only after you read Wickedness Never Was Happiness, Part 2.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Priesthood Blessings


Priesthood blessings have been on my mind recently, for a number of reasons.

My mother-in-law is feeling poorly and has been for at least a week. On Monday night, she requested that I give her a blessing. Since neither Alana nor I had firm plans for our Family Home Evening lesson that night, we decided to teach my two-year-old son Gabriel about priesthood blessings. He folded his arms reverently three times: once when I consecrated oil for the healing of the sick, once when Donald Gilreath (my mother-in-law's home teacher) anointed her with the oil, and once while I gave her a blessing. He listened patiently while Alana and I explained how priesthood blessings can make us feel better and help us learn what Heavenly Father wants us to do. Then, he ran to me and said very seriously, "I want a blessing, Daddy."

I, of course, was glad to oblige and touched that he wanted a blessing. This is the blessing he received:

"Gabriel Ogarek Hutchins, by the power of the Melchizedek priesthood which I hold, I give you a blessing as you have desired. I bless you, Gabe, that you will know how much your Heavenly Father loves you and your family—your mommy and daddy and your grandparents and your little brother David, who loves you. I bless you that you will grow strong and active and obedient, especially as you learn and continue to grow older: that you will become increasingly obedient and that you will be a help to your mother and a good older brother who plays with his little brothers. I bless you that you will learn a lot in nursery, and in your primary classes at church and that you will have the play time that you want with your family. And these things I bless you with, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen. "

Afterwards, Gabe was very proud: "I got a blessing."

In addition to the opportunity to bless Gabe and Mam O (my mother-in-law), I have thought a lot recently about a blessing my father will receive before his surgery on Saturday to remove a cancerous thyroid gland from his throat. I hope that this blessing will promise him continued long life, as a 2003 blessing at the hands of apostle Richard G. Scott did, the first time he was treated for cancer. But...if he is not so blessed, my faith in the priesthood and God's goodness will remain unshaken.

Below is a talk I recently gave on the topic of priesthood blessings--another reason that the subject has been on my mind lately. I learned much more than I anticipated when I was asked to give this talk (and more than I've shared); I hope you will too.

The Holy Ghost is made available to each of us as a constant companion through the ordinances of the Melchizedek priesthood. After we are baptized, an elder of the church lays his hands on our heads and confirms us members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He directs us to “Receive the Holy Ghost” and pronounces a priesthood blessing on our heads as directed by the Spirit. The gift of the Holy Ghost is precious—in the apostles’ day, when a local magician named “Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost” (Acts 8:18-19). But the Melchizedek priesthood cannot be acquired with money, and priesthood blessings cannot be bought by the richest man. And while the gift of the Holy Ghost may be the greatest of the blessings available through the Melchizedek priesthood, worthy priesthood holders can also bless babies, dedicate a home or a grave, provide inspired counsel, and heal the sick. I suspect that when brother Henderson called and asked me to address the topic of “priesthood blessings” that healing the sick is what he had in mind—and it is on that subject that I wish to speak with you today.

The church handbook of instructions provides excellent guidance on how to administer a priesthood blessing for the healing of the sick. Ideally, you should have two elders and a small amount of oil that has been set apart and consecrated for the healing of the sick. After placing a small drop of oil on the crown of the sick or injured person’s head, one elder will place his hands on the head and, calling the person by name, announce that he is anointing him or her under the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood and close in the name of Jesus Christ. The remaining elders participating in the ordinance will then place their hands on the sick or injured person’s head and seal the anointing before providing a personalized blessing of counsel and comfort as directed by the Spirit. Most, if not all of us, have been the recipient of such a priesthood blessing.

These priesthood blessings follow the pattern established by the Lord Jesus Christ and his ancient apostles. When the Christ first sent his apostles “forth by two and two” to minister in Judea, the gospel of Mark says that they “anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:7, 13)—and, incidentally, Mark is the gospel to read if you want to know more about healing and being healed. After his resurrection, Christ explained that healing the sick is one of the “signs [that] shall follow them that believe”; true believers “shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17-18). Christ’s brother, the apostle James, later codified the process for us: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). James promised that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:15). I can and do testify to each of you that James’ promise is efficacious, that the prayer of faith can heal the sick. I have laid my hands on the head of a sick man and commanded him to be healed—and he was healed, in that very moment. Other holders of the priesthood have laid their hands on my head and healed me. Christ promised that true believers in him would have the ability to heal the sick, and I know that that power is present in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The miraculous healings I have witnessed do not prove that this church is true in and of themselves, but they are a proof.

James’ promise that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick” notwithstanding, priesthood blessings are not a panacea for all ills, and all the faith in the world will not save an individual whose time on this earth has finished. I know this for myself—six years ago this November, my parents received a call from President James E. Faust while they were driving in the car. He extended a call to them, asking them to serve as mission presidents. My parents accepted gratefully. In December, my father, who was the stake president at the time, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He tearfully informed President Faust of his medical problems. President Faust told him that because of his changed condition, he would be restricted to a mission within the United States, but he also offered words of comfort and cheer. When it came time for the reorganization of the stake presidency in March, 2003, Elder Richard G. Scott was sent by the First Presidency to officiate, but also to give my father a blessing. In the Boston Temple, Elder Scott laid his hands on my father’s head in the presence of each endowed member of my family (except myself—I was serving my own mission at the time). He rebuked the cancer and promised my father that he would be enabled to serve his mission unimpeded. This was in March. By late June, when my parents reported to the MTC, my father was cancer-free and no longer required medical treatment. My family and the attending physicians considered this a miracle. For three years my father served as a mission president without any health problems; at the end of his third year, President Hinckley called him and asked him to serve as the Boston Temple president—an assignment that started in November 2006. He continued to experience good health until he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer three weeks ago. I dare say that my father’s faith to be healed and Elder Scott’s faith to heal have not changed—but there will be no repeat of that 2003 blessing—and even if Elder Scott did fly out and give him a blessing, there is no guarantee that his blessing would offer good news.

Priesthood blessings, like prayer, are the means “by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of [a priesthood blessing] is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are conditional on our asking for them” (BD, “Prayer,” 752-53). In 2003, when my father received a priesthood blessing, he was not trying to convince the Lord to heal him. He just did his part to receive a desired blessing that the Lord was already willing to give. It may be that a loving Heavenly Father is willing to heal my own earthly father again, when he receives a blessing prior to surgery—but if my father is not healed, it will have nothing to do with a lack of faith on his part or on the part of those blessing him. When we ask for a priesthood blessing, we should emulate the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These faithful youth, when threatened with death by fire for failing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idols told him that “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:17-18). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego earnestly desired to be delivered from the fiery furnace and expressed complete faith in God, but they were willing to accept the Lord’s will in the matter. When we ask for a priesthood blessing to relieve us of an infirmity, we too must learn to say “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us […] but if not,” we will continue to trust in his mercy and goodness.

Sometimes priesthood blessings serve to reconcile us with the reality that we will not be healed, that a given physical affliction is a necessary part of our experience here in mortality. In the ward I grew up in, a horrible car accident left two teenage boys paralyzed, quadriplegics with a limited use of their bodies from the neck down. The accident seemed a disaster, a tragic event that limited their futures. When I spoke with the two shortly after they received their patriarchal blessings, however, they told me that the stake patriarch had informed them that this accident was foreordained—that they had both accepted the burdens and challenges of being physically handicapped in the preexistence, long before they came to earth and had their accident. Similarly, several times in my own experience, I have been asked to provide a priesthood blessing to individuals who were in pain and awaiting surgeries. On at least one occasion, I received a clear prompting that the individual in question would not survive the surgery for any appreciable length of time. Instead of blessing her to be healed, I felt prompted to offer her a blessing of comfort. She died shortly thereafter. We should remember the counsel shared with us two months ago by Elder Bednar, who pointed to Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s example of patient suffering and reminded us that “Not shrinking is more important than surviving.”

But death does not always release us from physical pain anymore than priesthood blessings do—at times, we are required to live with physical liabilities in order to learn that we must depend on Jesus Christ and not our own strength. The apostle Paul, “lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations” was given “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” Paul “besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me” but the Lord did not remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh; instead, God informed the apostle that “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, was willing to trust in God even if he was not delivered from the fiery furnace of arthritis, epilepsy, migraine headaches or whatever other chronic malady afflicted him; he told the saints in Corinth, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Again, to recall Elder Bednar’s recent words of counsel, “Happiness is not the absence of a load.” Whether a priesthood blessing removes a load of physical pain from our lives or not, it is always an opportunity to grow closer to the Savior and to gain a deeper understanding of his atoning sacrifice.

When priesthood blessings do heal us, they do so by and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, who went “forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11). When we ask for and receive a priesthood blessing, we ought to remember that we are really asking for Jesus Christ to interpose his precious blood on our behalf and to take upon Himself our sufferings. Fortunately, every priesthood blessing provides us with a clear symbolic reminder of the part that Christ’s atonement plays in the healing process. Before any blessing for the sick, one drop of consecrated oil is placed on the sick person’s head. This oil has no magical properties and is not the means of healing. Elder John A. Widstoe explains that “it is the prayer of faith that saves the sick, and the Lord who raises them up, not the oil” (Priesthood and Church Government). Just as the waters of baptism, in and of themselves, do not wash away sin, consecrated oil, in and of itself, does not heal the sick. Instead, consecrated oil points us to the sacrifice of our Savior. Elder Nelson explains that quote “Jesus came to the base of the Mount of Olives to effect the first component of the Atonement. This He did at the Garden of Gethsemane. The word Gethsemane comes from two Hebrew roots: gath, meaning ‘press,’ and shemen, meaning ‘oil,’ especially that of the olive. There olives had been pressed under the weight of great stone wheels to squeeze precious oil from the olives. So the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane was literally pressed under the weight of the sins of the world. He sweated great drops of blood—his life's ‘oil’—which issued from every pore. […] So the next time you witness consecrated oil being anointed on the head of one to be blessed, and these sacred words are said, ‘I anoint you with this consecrated oil,’ remember what that original consecration cost” end quote (Nelson “Why This Holy Land”).

Remembering the part that Christ’s Atonement plays in healing the sick makes the promise of James—that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick […] and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:15)—more real to us. When we are healed by a priesthood blessing, we experience the power of the Atonement in our lives. If we have sufficient faith to be healed physically, we have sufficient faith to be healed spiritually, and spiritual healing is always unconditionally available to us. This is why, when Christ reached out to heal the man “sick of the palsy,” he could say “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee” instead of “take up they bed and walk” (Mark 2:5, 9). Christ’s real message is that His atoning sacrifice has interceded and made it possible for the man to be healed completely, both physically and spiritually. The scribes present murmur when Christ verbally forgives the man’s sins because they do not understand the means by which his physical ailment—the palsy—is healed. If they truly understood that miraculous healings are the product of the Atonement, they would understand why spiritual healing invariably accompanies physical healing.

Both types of healing require an active faith on our part. Those who desire to be healed physically must seek out that blessing, because the Lord has instructed priesthood holders in this day and dispensation not to go about “healing the sick […] except it be required of you by them who desire it” (D&C 24:13-14). In addition to simply requesting a priesthood blessing, sick individuals must seek to develop “faith to be healed” just as those offering the blessing must “have faith to heal” (D&C 46:19-20). Both types of faith are spiritual gifts made available to every member of the church “by the Spirit of Christ; and they come unto every man severally, according as he will” (Moroni 10:17). These gifts “are given for the benefit of those who love [God] and keep all [His] commandments, and [those] that seeketh so to do” (D&C 46:9). While priesthood blessings are administered only be worthy Melchizedek priesthood holders, these spiritual gifts are available to all members of the church, and miraculous physical healing can take place without the application of consecrated oil or of Melchizedek priesthood holders. Sick individuals who wish to be healed should express their faith by requesting a priesthood blessing, but when such a blessing is unavailable, Elder Orson F. Whitney has promised that healing can still take place: “The sick can be healed without the use of consecrated oil, or even without the laying on of hands” (“The Second Birth,” Saturday Night Thoughts). In the Haun’s Mill massacre, a seven year old boy named Alma Smith was severely injured; his hip had been irreparably damaged by gunfire. The men of Haun’s Mill were either dead or wounded and Alma could not receive a priesthood blessing, but Alma’s mother, Amanda Smith, believed that the Lord could heal her son even when a blessing was not possible. She prayed for her son’s recovery and dressed his wound in the manner in which the Spirit directed, and in five weeks her son had completely recovered.

For many of us, exercising such faith may seem a daunting task, but if we, like the father who brought his possessed child to Jesus Christ, will request that He “help thou mine unbelief,” He will provide the means for us to be healed (Mark 9:24). When, in Bethsaida, a blind man was brought to him, Christ “spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him” and “asked him if he saw ought.” The blind man replied that he saw “men as trees walking”—that he had been restored to partial sight. Christ then “put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly” (Mark 8:23-25). It may be that Christ healed this blind man in stages because the man initially lack sufficient faith to be completely healed—but that his faith was strengthened after Christ first put his hands on his eyes. I know that if we, like this blind man and the father of the possessed child, exercise all of our faith that the Lord will make us whole once again—even if do not have sufficient faith initially. To paraphrase Second Nephi 25:23, “It is by grace that we are [healed] after all we can do.” Like the woman with an issue of blood, who, “When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment,” we too must exert ourselves before He will hear our cries. It is not enough simply to enter the crowd—we must stretch forward and do all that we can to prepare ourselves for the Master’s healing touch. And then, after we have done all we can do, let us remember the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and say, “Lord, I know that you can heal me and believe that you will, but if not…I will still be faithful.” It is my testimony that as we exercise our faith appropriately in requesting and administering priesthood blessings the Lord will heal us—but if not, He will explain to us the reason why, just as He told Joseph Smith in his time of trouble that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

Get better on Saturday, Dad--and know that I'll be praying for the Lord to intervene on your behalf--but if not, I know that you'll continue to be a good example of unwavering trust in the Lord and his purposes.