Inversion of Ends and Means


And if men come unto me I will show them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men who humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)

This verse struck me strongly the other day. Partly, because I like feeling strong, not weak. But strength without a deep acknowledgement of weakness is illusory. It's all show and it's never secure. And paradoxically, owning my brokenness opens the door to partnership with God, who is the source of resilient strength.

Because pride is a constant (and often subtle) struggle for me, I feel blessed to have this message continually tugging at my attention. I keep being gently reminded to be wary of influences that play into my inclination to vaunt myself. Lately, one of the influences that have set off alarm bells is a variety of programs for success and self-improvement.  

There are many of them. I'm not going to name them. But they have a common element of empowering the personal will. They invite me to identify the things I want and then to employ a series of daily practices for bringing them into my life. Things like affirmations and vision boards. Focusing very specifically on my goal both morning and night. Closing my eyes and visualizing its realization. Checking in with accountability partners. 

These are good things. Life-changingly powerful. In truth, I believe they are practices for exercising faith. Ether 12, the same chapter that identifies our need to see our weakness, also states, "And there were many, an exceedingly great many, who beheld with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith. And they were glad." 

The problem with the programs is not the practices. It's the confusion of ends for means and means for ends. 

For example, the creator of one popular program teaches participants to think about something they want and then walks them through a pattern for getting it. The key, he says, is to make it about the good you're going to do with the object of your desire. How are you going to use it to bless others? You figure that out. Then you make it real to all your senses. You put it on a vision board. Find a way to hear it, touch it, smell it, taste it. Focus on it and it will come into your life. 

He uses the example of the sailboat he wanted. He decided he was going to use it as a tool for mentoring others on sailing trips. He put a picture of the sailboat on his vision board. Then he went down to the marina and toured the boat he wanted. He wanted to hear how it sounded on the water, feel it, smell it. He even got down on his knees and licked the fender. In short order, that boat came into his life. 

Something about step two in this process feels very off to me. It's backward. Doing good is not supposed to be a means to the end of getting material things. Material things are supposed to be a means to the end of doing good. 

The prophet Jacob (from the Book of Mormon) gave that counsel more than 500 years BC, when his people started to lose themselves to materialism. He said, "But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Jacob 2:18-19)

Does it matter which comes first, so long as you're doing both? 

Yes. It matters a great deal. It matters because success in life is not about getting material prosperity. It's about getting a change of nature, from fallen and selfish to Christlike and loving. Learning to love like Jesus loves is the great quest of mortality and that's not going to happen if I'm using good works as a means to achieving my selfish desires.

"For where your treasure is," said Jesus, "there will your heart be also" (Matt 6:21).

He went on: "The light of the body is the eye." (The eye symbolizes what we focus on. Think vision boards).  "If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness" (Matt 6:22-23).

And then the clincher: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

I believe there's power in vision boards, in affirmations, in conscious focus on goals. But it matters a great deal what's on that board. Is it a change of nature or an extravagant toy? Is it changing the world for good or is it fame and fortune? And am I going to focus on my power to achieve, or on my need to trust God and take direction from Him?

For me, I believe that the "law of attraction" is a secularized term for the principle of faith. The problem with secularizing faith is that it incites my appetite for the things mammon can provide and it inflames my ego, persuading me that I can achieve whatever I want through the power of conscious positive thinking. 

But what I really want is a hope in Christ; to become godly. The law of attraction can't give me that, only faith in Jesus Christ. And the mightier I think I am in the power of positive thinking, the less willing I am to see my need for Jesus Christ. 

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